Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Fiction Review: "Blue & Green," Virginia Woolf

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

Virginia Woolf contemplates colors, asking the reader to consider them in tangible and intangible form, as well as from objective and subjective points-of-view.

“Blue & Green” features Virginia Woolf in her prose-poem mold. There’s no significant narrative content; the piece is a meditation on the perceptions of color. Woolf specifically focuses on color being experienced in both tangible and intangible forms. Tangible color includes the appearance of animals, such as green feathers or blue skin. The examples of intangible color Woolf describes are the heat mirages above desert sand, as well as the image of light refracted through the stained glass of a chandelier. The immediate impression of the piece is that it is a cataloging of how color takes diverse forms.

Woolf, though, is too sophisticated to waste a reader’s time with something as simplistic as a list. She also emphasizes that the experience of color is as relative as it is diverse. She uses blue details to heighten the reader’s sense of a great fish’s strength as it swims through the sea, which she then juxtaposes with the use of the color to render its pathos while it lies dead and rotting on a beach. Colors are also depicted as relative to themselves: the light refracted through the glass can be either blue or green depending on the time of day.

Woolf is also sophisticated enough to give the piece a clear structure, having it move from objective to subjective perceptions. The examples of color in the opening half, such as the light seen through chandelier glass, carry no emotional inflections; they’re of color experienced coolly and impersonally, an effect Woolf heightens by including a bracketed description of birds squawking. Sounds, like emotions, carry shock and immediacy; objective perception simply is. By definition, it stands apart. However, there’s no standing apart from the images of the fish’s life and death that take up most of the second half. Woolf means for the reader to identify with the fish in both its glory and degradation. We see the light refracted through glass; we feel the fish’s experience of life and death. The subjective takes over from the objective.

And in the final sentence, the subjective gives way to the ambiguous. The renderings of the fish prompt a straightforward emotional response. Woolf, though, closes with an image of a cathedral’s interior, and one doesn’t know whether to experience it as a description of peacefulness or oppression. One is inclined towards the latter, but one isn’t quite sure: Woolf pointedly says the feeling to be evoked is different from that of the beached fish. My own thought is that the cathedral is intended as an image of strength, but not one like that of the swimming fish. The fish in its life evokes joyous awe; the cathedral is a presence that--perhaps--inspires fear. However, one can also take the cathedral as an image of permanence; the fish’s glory, in contrast, is fleeting. I suppose the insight one is to take away is that colors carry many meanings, including ones that can’t quite be sorted out.

Other reviews of works by Virginia Woolf

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Comics Review: Rip Kirby, Volume One: 1946-1948, Alex Raymond

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

Alex Raymond's post-WWII detective strip features the great illustrator's evolution into an excellent comics dramatist, showcased in a handsome (and hefty) hardcover collection

Alex Raymond is best remembered for Flash Gordon, the fantasy-adventure newspaper strip he created in 1934 and illustrated up until his 1944 enlistment in the Marine Corps. Along with Hal Foster’s Prince Valiant and Burne Hogarth’s Tarzan, it represented the pinnacle of the illustrated-text adventure strip. Raymond combined bravura draftsmanship, composition, and rendering with an outlandish visual imagination. His concepts have since been run into the ground by George Lucas and others, but the sensuality and romantic sweep of his artwork remain compelling to this day.

However, Raymond’s achievement in Flash Gordon was that of an illustrator, not a cartoonist. The strips weren’t thought out in dramatic terms; Raymond didn’t play the pictures off each other for narrative effect. But Flash Gordon didn’t define Raymond’s career or aesthetic; it only represented a stage. When Raymond returned to civilian life after World War II, he was denied the opportunity to resume work on Flash Gordon (it had been turned over to his assistant), and so he proceeded to create a new adventure strip with Rip Kirby. It marked a considerable shift in subject matter. The protagonist wasn’t an epic fantasy hero like Gordon. He was an urbane private detective living in contemporary New York. Perhaps more importantly, the new strip also marked a major change in narrative style. Raymond dropped the static-illustration format in favor of the fluid dramatic storytelling epitomized by the work of peers like Milton Caniff and Roy Crane. He proved almost as adept at this new style as he had been in the old. Rip Kirby may not define its style among peers to the degree Flash Gordon did, but it is a sterling example, and it should be considered a trendsetter in its own right. A coffee-table book collecting the strip’s first three years has just been published, and it makes clear that Rip Kirby was the key influence on the major soap opera strips that followed, including Stan Drake’s The Heart of Juliet Jones and Leonard Starr’s On Stage. Raymond combined real-world settings, nuanced dramatizations, and scrupulous attention to detail with a dynamic photorealist approach. Nothing that had come before was quite like it.

Rip Kirby wasn’t a complete break from Flash Gordon. Kirby is, in his own way, as idealized and glamourous a protagonist as Flash. He’s tall, athletic, and handsome, and his physical attributes are matched with intellectual ones. He’s a professional chemistry scholar whose hobbies include golf and classical piano. The dynamic of the principal characters is similar, too. Gordon had two sidekicks: Doctor Zarkov, who provided some intellectual balance to Gordon’s brawn, and Dale Arden, who also doubled as his love interest. Kirby has two as well: his butler Desmond, a former safecracker with welcome advice on nearly everything, and his girlfriend Honey Dorian. Dale Arden had her rival for Flash’s affections with the recurring character Princess Aura, and Honey has hers with the gangster’s moll turned singer Pagan Lee. And though many of Kirby’s cases revolve around more earthbound crimes like drug-related murders and blackmail plots, Raymond hadn’t lost his taste for the fanciful. Two storylines are built around a doomsday chemical weapon, and one of the villains kills her enemies with a cane head equipped with retractable poison fangs.

The key appeal of Rip Kirby is, of course, the storytelling and art. Raymond’s handling of character nuance in particular is first-rate. He had evolved into a master of figure drawing and portraiture while working on Flash Gordon, and he took those skills into new areas. The characters’ thoughts and attitudes are brilliantly suggested by their posture, gestures, and even the tilt of their heads. The naturalism on display is astonishing; there’s none of the hammy gesticulating one sees in less capable hands. Raymond’s character effects are occasionally so subtle that one may stare at a panel over and over again, wondering just how he pulled it off. In one scene, Kirby is beset upon by two children who insist on sitting in his lap and pestering him about his gun. Raymond shows Kirby in medium shot, and he isn’t doing anything but sitting, but his annoyance comes through hilariously. The effect is achieved primarily by the suggestion that Kirby is staring blankly past the children, and Raymond’s precision is extraordinary: Kirby’s face takes up less than half an inch on the page. Raymond’s handling of lighting effects is also superb, and his attention to detail in the clothing designs and set decoration is all but incomparable.

Raymond’s artwork is at its most striking in the early episodes. There is a heavier reliance on deep-space compositions than there is later on in the strip, as well a greater use of white areas. Raymond achieves some gorgeous juxtapositions between the whites, grays, and solid blacks in his panels. The early episodes were also rendered primarily in pen, so that on the occasions when a brush is used--usually to create decorative effects in the clothes and furnishings--the contrast makes the panels pop from the page. When one adds this to Raymond’s characteristic skill with figures, faces, and drapery, well, it’s hard to imagine a comic strip looking more elegant. But nine months into the strip’s run, Raymond shifts to rendering largely with a brush. He also changes his design approaches. The panel compositions start relying almost exclusively on foreground elements, and the exquisite interplay between white, gray, and black is largely abandoned. The draftsmanship and dramatic skill are as impressive as ever, but beyond the photorealistic faces, the strip’s look doesn’t have much to distinguish it from the work of Frank Robbins or Steve Canyon-era Milton Caniff.

That, though, is plenty by itself to recommend the work. Those sleek early episodes are simply the icing on the cake. IDW Publishing and editor Dean Mullaney deserve an enormous amount of credit for bringing this material back into print. And on such a gargantuan scale! This slab of a book contains well over 800 daily strips, and if one enjoys the dramatic-continuity newspaper comics of the 1940s and '50s, it’s an absolute feast. Before now, one largely had to take on faith the view that Raymond’s dramatic storytelling skills were near the level of his illustrative prowess. The evidence is at last back with us, and it doesn’t disappoint.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Film Review: Capitalism: A Love Story

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

One doesn’t go to a Michael Moore movie looking to satisfy one’s curiosity about a subject. Unlike most documentary filmmakers, he doesn’t explore his material. He packages it. He never shows anything that he doesn’t have a predetermined attitude about, and it is all in service to a larger point he is trying to make. At his best, as in Fahrenheit 9/11 and Sicko, he delivers a sharply focused polemic. He doesn’t tell a viewer much of anything new, but he does provide an outlet for the anger and frustration one feels towards his targets. One comes away happy that, on a rare occasion in a high-profile media production, the right people and things are getting the savaging they deserve.

But Moore’s latest film, Capitalism: A Love Story, doesn’t provide much in the way of catharsis. A well-done polemic has an intense, rigorous view of what it is against. In Capitalism, Moore looks at the economic calamity that boiled over last year, but he can’t seem to get a grip on it. He tries to make the point that the devastating chicanery perpetrated by the financial-services industry is proof that capitalism is inherently evil. By its nature, it actively works against the common good. However, the material isn’t pulled together into a coherent argument. The film is rambling, muddleheaded, and at times, outright nuts.

It’s hard to escape the feeling that, this time out, Moore is all over the map. Much of the first half is devoted to a ground-level look at the lives of various people who have been victimized by corporate greed. There are repeated visits to a family that is in the process of being evicted from their farm. The viewer is told of the plight of modern-day airline pilots, whose compensation is so low that they often have to go on food stamps or get a second job. Considerable screen time is spent on “dead peasant” insurance, in which companies take out covert life-insurance policies on their employees, with the company named as the beneficiary. Moore also includes an extended episode that deals with a youth detention facility scandal in Pennsylvania, where a corrupt judge threw the book at every juvenile offender so the company operating the facility could maximize the public funds it received. All of this is worthy of attention, but the situations need the right context to do them justice. Moore uses them as examples of the evil of corporate greed, but they feel arbitrarily chosen. One could go through a year of the New York Times and find dozens of examples that are at least as compelling. A good polemic builds as it goes. Moore scatters his attention, and he can't generate any momentum.

It almost goes without saying that he doesn’t give the film’s central material the treatment it deserves. The majority of the film is spent on the foreclosure crisis, the banking meltdown, and the bailouts and their aftermath. Moore does a fair job of outlining what led up to the crisis, such as deregulation, the securitizing of mortgages, and the use of derivative mathematical models to commit large-scale fraud. The film is nowhere as instructive on the subject as David Faber’s excellent CNBC documentary House of Cards (click here), but it will do. But Moore all but completely ignores how self-destructive this conduct was for the banks. Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers collapsed outright, and the remaining investment banks were forced into hasty mergers. One isn’t asking for sympathy for these institutions--they deserved every hit they took--but if an account of the events ignores what happened to them, it cannot provide a proper context for TARP and the other bailouts. Moore jumps almost immediately from the mortgage swindle of consumers to TARP, and it quickly becomes clear why he gives short shrift to the banks’ circumstances. Ignoring the specifics of the banking crisis allows him to claim that it was all a conspiracy to get the U. S. Treasury looted before Bush left office.

Moore, like a lot of people who should have known better, took a big, shameless snort of Yes-We-Can Kool-Aid mix last year. In his view, the bankers and their cohort were frightened by a great, high-minded movement that was sweeping the land. It was a movement that was empowering people to take back the country from its corporate masters. The pillaging wrought under Reagan, the Bushes, and (by implication) Bill Clinton, would be brought to an end. That movement, of course, was the Barack Obama presidential campaign. The bankers needed to get their hands on everything that was left for them to take before Obama ascended to office and ended their rapacity once and for all.

This is utterly ridiculous, for all sorts of reasons. Obama never campaigned against the power of corporate America. He has never advocated any legislation that would protect distressed homeowners from foreclosure (unlike, for example, his chief rival for the Democratic presidential nomination, Hillary Clinton). He was just as happy to deliver the TARP and other bailout funds to the banks as George W. Bush. The second half of the TARP money was authorized after Obama became president, and he certainly didn’t demand that any conditions be placed on it. (Contrast this with his draconian treatment of the automobile companies and their workers.) In fact, Barack Obama received more money in campaign contributions from Wall Street than any other presidential candidate. They all but certainly feel they got their money’s worth.

In fairness to Moore, he does seem to be waking up to how much he misjudged Obama, but nowhere near enough to let go of the fantasy he presents about last year. He acknowledges the campaign contributions in the film, although he pretends Obama got them after the meltdown. He also features an interview with William K. Black, the Wyatt Earp of the 1980s savings-and-loan scandal, who describes Obama's Treasury secretary Timothy Geithner as a useful idiot for the financial industry. (Black calls him a man who is wrong about everything, but consistently wrong in ways that favor the bankers.) However, Moore is in love with this idea of a people’s uprising sweeping the nation, and he credits Obama’s election with inspiring such events as the successful severance-pay sit-down strike at Republic Windows and Doors last December. This nonsense is an expression of the most dubious aspect of the film, which is the claim that capitalism is evil and democracy is good, and that democracy is finally beginning to fight back.

Moore is fatuously equating capitalism with the wealthy, and specifically with the rapacity that caused the present crisis. One doesn't find him denouncing the core capitalism idea of private property. The prospect of middle- and working-class people owning their homes is all but idealized in the film. What he wants--and I am wholeheartedly with him on this--is a country where the non-wealthy can lead comfortable, fulfilling lives. Essentially, what he’s advocating is that the country return to where it was before the 1980s, back when taxes were used to level the economic playing field, and when laws and regulations were in place to prevent the sort of parasitic ingenuity that caused the current crisis. But it’s hard to escape the feeling that I understand what he wants more than he does. His thinking is as muddled as his use of words. (No one with any traditional understanding of “capitalism” or “democracy” would think of using those terms the way Moore does here.) He is so far into his tortured equivalency between capitalism and the rapacious rich that he's treating the notions of ambition and success with disdain.

In the best interview I have seen with Moore about the film (click here to watch), MSNBC entertainment correspondent Courtney Hazlett confronts him about his negative view of upward striving. I always enjoy watching Hazlett; she has a dry, ironic edge that makes her compelling even when one isn’t especially interested in what she’s covering. She draws Moore out on this subject. He reveals that he distrusts the very ideas of upward mobility and entrepreneurial success--he sees them as a lures in a sucker’s game. Hazlett asks him about the American Dream, and he scoffs, “I’d rather talk about the American reality. This dreaming stuff, come on! Really!” It's an astonishing exchange. This is the most successful documentary filmmaker in the history of movies, and he's effectively spitting on the entrepreneurial drive that got him where he is. He's justifiably angry over what the financial industry has done to people, but he's so overwhelmed by that anger that he's lost perspective on everything else.

The root of it all may be that Moore has lost his own dream. Throughout the film, he shows clips from home movies of him growing up in Flint, Michigan. His father was a factory worker, his mother was a homemaker, and they owned their house within a few years of buying it. The memories of his childhood are ones that Moore clearly finds a great sense of security in, and he wants for everyone to know that ideal. But he knows they can't; in many ways, it is gone for him as well. His once prosperous hometown is now a symbol of urban decay. In the film's most powerful scene, Moore and his elderly father go to look at the vast, empty site where the factory that employed his father once stood. The view is an effective trope for Moore's attitude: Corporate greed destroys everything. Unfortunately, it's also destroyed his judgment. He's now enamored with conspiracy theories, pied-piper politicians, and disparaging the very idea of entrepreneurial success.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Comics Review: "The Thing About Madeline," Lilli Carré

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

Lilli Carré blossoms from a promising talent to an accomplished cartoonist in this affecting, superbly crafted fantasy about finding fulfillment in one’s life.

Last year, I reviewed Lilli Carré’s The Lagoon, which I found extremely frustrating. Carré was a striking cartooning talent, with an obvious interest in formal experimentation, but the story was largely inscrutable. There was a hermetic feeling to it, as if a good portion of it was still locked up in her head. I had come to the book after reading a number of current comics where the authors had never bothered to give their material any kind of dramatic or poetic shape. In my review of The Lagoon, I unfairly lumped Carré’s work in with those meandering efforts. Unlike the peers of hers in question, she clearly conceived her work in terms of narrative effects. The problem with The Lagoon was that there was something about the story that proved ineffable for her. She gave a sophisticated surface to material that just wasn’t accessible. One was caught between admiration for her obvious sense of craft and annoyance at the solipsistic nature of her content. I read it at a point where my patience with inchoate efforts was at a low ebb, and she became a target for a bit of misguided lashing out.

But two subsequent efforts make her quite the target for praise, and there is nothing misguided about it. “The Carnival,” which I’ll review soon, is probably the single best comics story of the past year. “The Thing About Madeline,” the subject of today’s piece, isn’t quite as accomplished, but nonetheless, it is a finely crafted gem. Everything comes together for Carré. The piece is elegantly structured and paced, with meanings both clear and affecting.

The key moment in “The Thing About Madeline” is when the title character comes home one evening and finds a doppelgänger sleeping in her bed. Up to this point, Carré has methodically constructed a portrait of Madeline as someone who is dissatisfied with life. She has a boring dead-end job, and she spends her off-hours at the local bar getting drunk and singing along with her favorite song on the jukebox. The opportunity is there for a romance with another bar regular, but Madeline is too caught up in her unhappiness to make the connection. The portrait climaxes with the arrival of the doppelgänger, a trope for the intensity of Madeline’s feelings of alienation. She has become so estranged from her life that she is no longer the one living it.

The story then artfully moves from metaphor to irony. In short order, the doppelgänger takes over every aspect of Madeline’s life, but the double finds happiness there. Her morale is high at work, and the bar becomes a place to socialize rather than retreat into oneself. Romance even blossoms with the fellow she hangs out with there. Madeline finds herself literally on the outside looking in. She has become so completely shut out of her life that her acquaintances no longer recognize her. When she and the double finally confront each other, her sense of alienation reaches its apogee: She no longer recognizes herself. Carré uses personification to powerful dramatic effect.

The confrontation scene works as a climax and a second turning point. In the story’s third act, Madeline leaves town and builds a new life elsewhere. Lessons appear to have been learned from the doppelgänger episode; Madeline embraces her new routines and relationships instead of allowing herself to be defeated by them. Carré, though, is too sharp to end her story on such a pat, moralizing note. A few years later, Madeline briefly encounters a person she knew in her old life, and things have changed for him. When she last saw him, he was happy and fulfilled, but now there is an air of dissatisfaction. The story ends with Madeline being stalked by a second figure from earlier in the story, one who appears to be acting out of an obsessive sense of envy. It is a superbly suggestive finale. Carré closes the story on a portentous note, and she challenges the reader’s judgment of Madeline as a character. Madeline’s problem in the story’s first two sections may not have been her attitude. Perhaps her circumstances were inherently demoralizing after all. The ending also lends itself to a supernatural reading at odds with the one I'm presenting here. There’s a feeling of the uncanny in the final moments that cannot be dismissed.

Carré’s presentation of the story is largely excellent. The panels are clear and unostentatiously drawn. She also does a fine job of building the story’s rhythms. The story moves back and forth between expository narration and dialogue. It never feels monotonous, and the shifts in the approach to dramatization never call attention to themselves. The only things that aren’t handled particularly well are the color effects. The scenes featuring Madeline’s old life are rendered in indigo hues, with the ones in her new circumstances presented in a muted orange. The shift is clearly intended to reflect the emotional change in her life, but the meaning is too obvious. The color gray is also used, and the handling of it is confusing. Carré uses it in the outside-looking-in moments, but the feeling she is trying to evoke with it never comes across. But these are niggling flaws, and one respects the effort. It is always better to fall down by trying too much than trying too little. One’s sense of Carré is that she strives to make every element she includes serve a narrative purpose, and overall, “The Thing About Madeline” is a superb example of craft and formal control. She’s a terrific cartoonist.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Poetry Review: "A House Is Not a Home," Terrence Hayes

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

This elegantly constructed poem uses a drunken tiff as a springboard for a reverie about sounds--and satirizes bourgeois African-American pretensions about their heritage along the way.

So much of reading contemporary poetry involves working through tropes. No matter how much one enjoys analyzing things, it can get a bit wearying at times. But a poem like Terrance Hayes’ “A House Is Not a Home,” an exercise in building structure out of free association, is an enjoyable respite. Hayes catches a reader up in his imaginative flights. By the end, he also has one marveling at how he pulls his verbal caprices together into a coherent whole. Reading the poem is like listening to an experienced jazz musician play out one apparently unrelated riff after another, only to recognize that they’re adding up to a proper song. The hook isn’t there at the beginning; you pick up on the refrains as you go.

The starting point for “A House Is Not a Home” is an incident in which the narrator gets his ears boxed by a friend and the friend’s wife after an inappropriate display of drunken affection. At first, all he can think of is the happier moments when the three of them were singing along with soul crooner Luther Vandross. From then on, every thought that occurs to him relates to sound, which eventually circles back to the scene with his friends. The structure isn’t immediately obvious, but it is ultimately very simple. The passages about the friends alternate with passages featuring the musings about sounds. The latter function like bridges between the choruses of the former.

The reader may be taken aback by the nature of the sound imagery. Examples include the sounds of church fires and “a skull that only a sharecropper’s daughter can make sing.” Obviously, Hayes is evoking images from the battles over Jim Crow and civil rights. But one doesn’t get the sense that he’s laying it on in the service of any kind of self-aggrandizement. If anything, he’s doing the opposite. Bringing it up in the context of a drunken reverie makes it come across as a poke at the narrator's pretentiousness in bringing it up at all. The feeling of absurdity is only enhanced by the narrator's plans to do his aural explorations as a hypothetical employee of the--brace oneself--"African American Acoustic and Audiological Insurance Institute." There’s an irksome pomposity to bourgeois African-Americans polishing the talismans of bygone oppressions, particularly those they only know vicariously. Hayes seems to recognize how ridiculous that behavior can be. Anyway, everything comes back to the narrator’s relationship with his friends, and that is ultimately what’s important. Sounds may evoke the symbols of history, but they also stand in for everyday personal experiences. It’s the latter that always stays with one the most.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Film Review: Bright Star

This review originally appeared on Pol Culture.

Jane Campion’s treatment of the love affair between Fanny Brawne and the great Romantic poet John Keats occasionally comes to imaginative life. Overall, though, it isn't much more than a mild, rather dreary historical romance.

Bright Star, written and directed by Jane Campion, is at its best in its happy moments. The spirit of Romanticism suffuses bits like John Keats (Ben Whishaw) basking cheerfully atop a tree, or Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish) lying in bliss as a sunny breeze blows a window’s curtains over her. There’s a charming slapstick scene featuring Keats and Fanny walking with her prepubescent sister (Edie Martin). The couple walks behind the younger girl, holding hands and kissing, but every time she looks back, they immediately separate. Their moving away from each other becomes increasingly theatrical, and they ultimately freeze into human statues whenever the sister turns. And Campion comes up with a magical moment to illustrate how inspired Fanny was by Keats’ famously passionate letters to her. She and her sister begin a butterfly farm in their bedroom, and one stares in wonder at the scene in which Fanny, her sister, and their mother (Kerry Fox) talk while the colorful insects flutter around them.

But these moments are fleeting. The butterflies are no sooner introduced than their corpses are swept into a dustbin. The (chaste) romance between Fanny and Keats was a doomed one. They met when she was 18 and he was 23, and he was dead from tuberculosis at the age of 25. Campion’s take on the material--she based her script on the relevant portions of Andrew Motion’s gargantuan 1998 biography of Keats--is grubbily naturalistic, with an emphasis on dreariness. The film isn’t boring--the individual scenes are intelligently written and reasonably well crafted, and the story moves along at a decent pace. But Fanny and Keats aren’t especially vivid, and Campion appears more interested in recreating the period than anything else. Her knack for poster imagery occasionally gets the better of her: there are shots of flowery meadows that are suitable for framing. But in general, she seems to want to impress the audience with gritty realism. Her vision of England circa 1820 is long on rain, mud, and gloomy interiors, and she manages to get in a few scenes that highlight London’s squalor as well.

Campion isn’t especially true to the setting, though. The actual Fanny and Keats had fairly active social lives, but judging from the film, one would think they were living in relative isolation in the English countryside. There is an early ball scene, with Fanny having a full dance card, but afterward, she is never shown having any suitors. As for Keats, apart from his relationship with Charles Armitage Brown (Paul Schneider), his housemate and benefactor, he seems a friendless recluse. The romance seems to blossom by default. The inattention to the social milieu also leads to some discordant moments later in the film. When Fanny’s mother tells her that her relationship with Keats has become a source of gossip among their neighbors, one has no idea who the mother is talking about. And after Keats develops tuberculosis, a gaggle of friends repeatedly show up to discuss raising funds in order to send him to more healthy climes in Italy. One sits there wondering who these people are, and why the film hasn’t introduced them earlier.

The picture is relentlessly low-key, and it fails the most basic test for a fictional treatment of historical figures: Would anyone be interested in these people without any prior knowledge of who they were? One appreciates the challenge Campion faced in taking this material on. Writers are difficult characters to dramatize. They tend to be sedentary, introverted workaholics--hardly the stuff of an engaging movie. Other filmmakers have tried to solve the problem by getting overtly fanciful with the writers’ lives. Shakespeare in Love, the most successful example, used the writing and initial performance of Romeo and Juliet as the basis for a rich farce. Another recent effort, Becoming Jane, reimagined an episode from Jane Austen’s life as the sort of narrative one would find in her novels. Campion significantly departs from the facts of Keats and Brawne’s lives just once, and even that seems half-hearted. After being told of Keats’ death, Fanny hacks off her hair and, in a near-catatonic reverie, wanders the wintry countryside reciting a sonnet he wrote for her. It’s part Sylvia Plath and part Emily Brontë, and it’s an uninspired fizzle.

One might think that Campion would have tried to build a counterpoint between Keats’ poetry and the events of the story, but the poems are used in a way that suggests Campion had to be reminded to include them. Ben Whishaw occasionally reads lines from the poems in voiceover, but it never adds anything to the scenes. Fanny and Keats read stanzas of “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” to each other, which makes little sense given that Fanny is repeatedly shown to find poetry baffling. The initial use of “Bright star, would I were stedfast as thou art,” the sonnet Keats wrote in Fanny’s honor, is laughably redundant; Keats recites the line “Pillow’d upon my fair love’s ripening breast” with--that’s right--his head nestled in Fanny’s bosom. Whishaw delivers a fine reading of “Ode to a Nightingale” over the closing credits, but the placement makes it seem like an afterthought.

The cast is largely unmemorable. Ben Whishaw’s Keats and Abbie Cornish’s Fanny are notable mostly for their physical contrast: he’s sallow and frail, while she’s robustly healthy and plush-figured. Whishaw and Cornish are capable actors, but the characters aren’t developed enough to be particularly compelling. Kerry Fox and Edie Martin are intriguing as the mother and sister; one only wishes Campion had given them something to do. The only performer who makes a strong impression is Paul Schneider. But unfortunately, the impression he makes the wrong kind. Charles Armitage Brown is written as a comic boor, but Schneider is far more boorish than comic. Every time I heard that booming voice of his, I sat there clenching my teeth waiting for him to leave. Worse, Campion seems oblivious to how bullying a presence he is in his scenes. She needed to tone him down, and she often makes him even more overbearing. An extended rant in which he berates himself for failing to do right by Keats would have been too much under any circumstances; Campion has him yell it over the sound of a squalling baby.

Looking at the ads for Bright Star, I’ve been struck by their similarity to those for the Twilight movies. The male protagonists are wan, gaunt, and vaguely Byronic, and the women are both earthy, unidealized beauties. Twilight’s hook is that the vampire hero loves the heroine too much to give in to his lust for her blood. (Is there any question as to the metaphor there?) It has been derided as abstinence porn, and Bright Star has this quality as well. An air of unrequited desire hangs over the film, with Campion putting an exclamation point on it in Keats and Fanny’s last scene together. She offers to have sex with him the night before he leaves for Italy, which he refuses out of, as he says, “conscience.” Bright Star seems tailor-made for audiences who get the appeal of Twilight , but wouldn’t be caught dead watching a teenage vampire movie. So they’ll happily go to Campion’s flat historical love story instead. It isn’t imaginative enough to confuse them, and it’s about a great writer, so it must be serious. Essentially, Bright Star is Twilight for pretentious middlebrows. Personally, I’d rather reread Keats.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Comics Review: Billie Holiday, José Muñoz & Carlos Sampayo

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

Billed as “The story of America’s greatest and most tragic jazz singer,” this short graphic novel reads more like a modernist elegy for her. Unfortunately, it is one that remembers her more for the pathos of her life than her music.

It is hard to think of a medium more unsuited to a story treatment of a musical figure than comics. Narrative cartooning isn’t a textual medium so much as a dramatic one. The characters in comic strips and graphic novels have far more in common with the performers in theater and film than they do with writers’ prose descriptions. A cartoonist can show a singer performing, but it is impossible to evoke the tone of the vocals or the cadence of the delivery to the degree it can be done with words. Comics are inherently staccato in their rhythms; they don't have the expressive fluidity words by themselves can provide.

But that hasn’t stopped cartoonists from trying, and some have even succeeded to a degree. One example is Robert Crumb, whose biographical treatments of figures like Charlie Patton strongly evoke the milieu from which the musicians’ work emerged. Another is Bill Sienkiewicz, whose flamboyantly hallucinatory treatment of Jimi Hendrix’s life was an extremely apt analogue to the visionary rock guitarist’s music.

I had hopes for José Muñoz and Carlos Sampayo’s short (49-page) Billie Holiday graphic novel, first published in 1991. Muñoz’s flair for noir atmosphere, urban settings, and tellingly grotesque visual characterizations is ideal for the ‘30s and ‘40s New York nightlife in which Holiday came to prominence. His expressionistic genius for dramatizing alienation seemed a natural for evoking the hauntingly spare quality of her singing. Sampayo’s scriptwriting can be erratic, but he provides his collaborator with a suitable springboard more often than not.

Part of what makes Billie Holiday a letdown is that Muñoz isn’t the dominant partner this time out. The art here is extremely reserved. Muñoz’s skill is obvious; his staging, compositions, and orchestration of black and white are immaculate. But the intensity one sees in Joe’s Bar and the later Alack Sinner material is rarely found. The art is elegant rather than expressive; it asks to be admired instead of felt. The singing scenes--Holiday is shown performing “Fine and Mellow” and “Lover Man”--are especially disappointing. They’re little more than a collection of mannered chiaroscuro head shots. Muñoz doesn’t dramatize the script so much as decorate it.

And it is not a good script. Sampayo doesn’t seem particularly interested in Holiday’s life as a singer. His focus is not on Holiday the performer so much as Holiday the victim. One episode after another emphasizes the pathos of her life. We see Holiday the teenage prostitute. (One john tells her, “I got the biggest equipment north o’ Mississippi; you gonna remember me.”) We see the Holiday who suffered horribly abusive lovers, including one who drives her to a remote area, orders her to strip, beats her, and then burns her clothes before stranding her. We see the Holiday who was harassed by police, most notably her infamous arrest on drug charges while on her hospital deathbed. There’s the heroin, the liquor, and the racism. Sampayo has always had an appetite for melodramatic sensationalism, and he uses Holiday’s life to gorge on it.

He tries to be artful about it. The script intersperses the episodes featuring Holiday with present-day (1989) scenes that alternate between Alack Sinner, Muñoz and Sampayo’s recurring private-eye character, and an entertainment journalist who is writing a story about Holiday for the thirtieth anniversary of her death. The journalist is a smug, yuppie ass who has never heard of Holiday before receiving the assignment. Sinner, on the other hand, is haunted by his two encounters with Holiday when she was alive. The first was during his childhood, and the second was as a young police officer. The structure is a basic modernist exercise in building a story through the juxtaposition of perspectives. Sampayo contrasts the person who doesn’t remember Holiday at all with a man who remembers her more than he perhaps should. The two of them are further juxtaposed with Holiday herself. The device offers no insight into anything. It only serves to dampen the garishness of the Holiday scenes and give the book an elegiac tone.

One wonders if the script was originally intended for a television or screen treatment of Holiday’s life. That would explain why the singing scenes are so unimaginatively handled, and why others seem designed for Holiday’s recordings to be used on the soundtrack as a counterpoint to the action. (This is especially the case with her most famous recording, “Strange Fruit.” The book gives the reader a great deal of build-up to the song, but there’s no follow-through.) Oddly enough, it might also explain why the Sinner character is featured. There’s no good reason for him to be used in the role he’s given. An original character would have worked at least as well, and it wouldn’t have seemed arbitrary--the only apparent reason for Sinner’s presence is to create a link between this book and Muñoz and Sampayo’s other work. But whatever the script’s origins, its biggest failing is that it hasn’t made for good comics. Apart from the shallowness of its content, it plays to almost none of the medium’s strengths. If anything, it only highlights the weaknesses. Muñoz does a handsome job of illustrating it, but for a reader, that shouldn’t be enough.

Note: The book’s back cover features a quote from jazz critic Stanley Crouch’s afterword that appears to be a testimonial. This is misleading. The “Billie Holiday” referred to in the quote is the singer, not the book. Crouch’s afterword is an essay reflecting on Holiday’s life and legacy. There is no mention of Muñoz and Sampayo’s story anywhere in it.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Comics Review: Big Numbers 3, Alan Moore & Bill Sienkiewicz

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

A bootleg version of the third chapter of the legendary unfinished graphic novel has surfaced--and leaves one even more wistful over the promise of what might have been.

Big Numbers 3 has never been published in print format. Jpegs of the "bootleg" version can be seen by clicking here.

Bill Sienkiewicz has written an essay about
Big Numbers, published here. In it, he describes the demanding and ultimately onerous process for creating the art in the first two issues, as well as his decision to ultimately walk away from the series. His reasons were far more complicated than what I indicate below. He also states that the discordant appearance of the third issue's artwork was entirely his doing. The art was drawn on Craftint illustration board, which explains the presence of mechanical tone. Please read the essay below with this in mind.

The unfinished works of exceptional artists always hold a special fascination for their audiences. If one is captivated by what is there, one can’t help but wonder about the glory of what didn’t see completion. Michelangelo’s Tomb of Pope Julius II, Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan,” Charles Dickens’ The Mystery of Edwin Drood--these are but some of the treasures that were never fully realized. In the book Beyond Life, the fantasy writer James Branch Cabell put forward the idea of a library “contain[ing] the cream of unwritten books--the masterpieces that were planned and never carried through.” Cabell’s imaginary library is one that any lover of the arts would revel in visiting.

The prize of that library’s comics shelves would undoubtedly be Big Numbers, Alan Moore< and Bill Sienkiewicz’s unfinished graphic novel from the early 1990s. Moore and Sienkiewicz were arguably the most accomplished talents working in adventure comics in the 1980s. Moore’s scriptwriting on books like Watchmen showed an insight, imagination, and command of narrative craft that could hold its own with the best that contemporary film and prose fiction had to offer. To paraphrase one reviewer, Moore brought adventure comics as close as they would ever get to literature, and he came closer than anyone could have guessed. As for Sienkiewicz, he had evolved from an attractive though derivative illustrator to the most visually audacious cartoonist working. In Elektra: Assassin and Daredevil: Love and War, both scripted by Frank Miller, he brought the Neo-Expressionist aesthetic to adventure comics. Eclecticism reigned, and whatever style or medium he considered most effective in rendering a scene was what was used. A collaboration between these two promised to be a spectacular piece of work.

The premise of Big Numbers only raised expectations. Using the tenets of chaos theory as a guide, it would dramatize the impact of a U. S.-style shopping mall being built in a British Midlands community. The book was to be modeled on literary fiction. The fantasy and adventure trappings of Moore and Sienkiewicz’s previous work would not be present. It was hard to escape the impression that the authors saw their previous efforts as part of an artistic stage they had outgrown. This statement on modern life was part of a new, more mature phase in their work. Judging from Moore’s statements in interviews, he saw the projected 500-page work as his magnum opus.

Two installments encompassing 80 pages were published in 1990. Moore introduced readers to a wide range of characters in a series of deftly written scenes. The scripting was frequently humorous and melancholy all at once. Sienkiewicz dramatized Moore’s script in a nuanced, elegantly naturalistic style that largely relied on subtly toned pencil renderings. There was no sensationalism in Moore’s scripting and minimal hyperbole in Sienkiewicz’s art. This was a work of literary fiction conceived in comics form, and one couldn’t wait to see how it would turn out.

No further installments were published. Sienkiewicz, who reportedly felt overwhelmed and constricted by the massive detail in Moore’s scripts, lost interest in the project and abandoned it. Al Columbia, who assisted Sienkiewicz on the first two installments, was hired to take over, but he lost interest as well. It is believed that he destroyed the pages he completed. Sienkiewicz did finish the art for the third installment, but after Columbia gave up on the book, the decision was made not to publish it. In the years since, ten random, unlettered pages from the third issue were printed in a couple of magazines, and Moore’s script for it was published online. But despite its availability, the prospect of looking at the disparate, incomplete material for the third issue was off-putting. It seemed like eating a dish by consuming the ingredients separately, with a number of them missing or in the wrong amounts.

Bill Sienkiewicz's original, unlettered page 12 for Big Numbers 3.

But this past March, the complete and lettered third installment showed up on the Internet. The pages were sold to Moore scholar Pádraig Ó Méalóid, and with Moore’s permission, this “bootleg” version of Big Numbers 3 was posted on The presentation is not ideal. Sienkiewicz’s rich pencil rendering is covered with mechanical tone, and the pages’ appearance suggests that they began as faxed proofs of the original art. But as cheesy as they look, the pages are readable. The sauce may be a supermarket-shelf generic instead of gourmet, but the food underneath is still first-rate. Sienkiewicz’s intentions for the art are apparent, and one finds Moore’s narrative becoming increasingly sophisticated. Big Numbers will never see completion, but the achievement of this third installment is impressive, and it is easily one of the key comics of the year.

The "bootleg" lettered version of page 12.

Moore maintains the easygoing pace seen in the first two chapters. He and Sienkiewicz again invite the reader to relax with the characters, and the nuanced understatement of the panels, despite their unfortunate surface appearance, still compels the reader to lose oneself in them. The craft on display in the third installment is just as remarkable as in the first two. The detailed visuals reinforce the languorous rhythms, but Moore never falls into the trap of letting the scenes meander on aimlessly. Every one is structured to end on a pointedly ironic note. The structure and detail in the scenes play off each other wonderfully, and one again finds oneself caught up in the lives of the numerous characters.

The third installment remains guided by the view of human interaction that informed the scenes in the first two chapters. Every person is regarded as an idiosyncratic entity, with those idiosyncrasies finding expression in routines and behavioral patterns. Alienation, which defines virtually every relationship Moore depicts to some degree, results from those patterns meeting, coming into conflict with each other, and creating tension. People then either retreat from one another, or they fall back on routines intended to bring the tension level down, such as making jokes or following through on courtesies. Moore apparently sees behavioral constants as the means through which people impose order on the uncertainty of their lives.

But Moore doesn’t become complacent in his depiction of the characters. The third chapter highlights that a key aspect of people’s dealings with one another is reductionism. We cope with our experience of other people--particularly in new encounters and peripheral relationships--by reducing each other to stereotypes. In keeping with Big Numbers’ roots in mathematical theory, one might say that people respond to complex input by simplifying it into a more easily processed form. This has its obvious bad points and its less obvious good ones. The bad is that it leads to prejudice and bigotry. The good is that it allows for more pointed and confident interactions with each other.

The chapter is at its most enjoyable when Moore emphasizes the absurdity that reductionism creates. A recurring scene features a young welfare clerk sitting at her vegetative husband’s hospital bedside: she's good-naturedly--although haplessly--trying to fill out a shopping-mall marketing survey on his behalf. The mall’s American personnel, including its architect, managers, and marketing supervisor, are shown making complete asses of themselves while trying to ingratiate themselves with the Midlands locals. All they do is repeat one boorish stereotype of British people after another. The marketing supervisor in particular is so obliviously obnoxious in his prejudices that every scene featuring him is a comedic gem. One also sees some sharp satiric ideas from Moore, such as the role-playing game the architect’s teenage children are product-testing. It’s called “Real Life,” and the first three things the kids determine in setting up the game characters are their race, gender, and economic class.

Nearly everything in the chapter emphasizes the process of reductionism found in contemporary life. There are the marketing surveys and canvassers that nearly every character is confronted with. The goal is reduce each of them to a marketing profile. People are presented to the public through photographs. A local author participates in the effort to turn her life into column inches for a local newspaper. That same writer is hard at work on a novel, another distillation of life into the two dimensions of the printed page. But reductionism is difficult for her. She writes of a character, “It was very hard to sum her up,” and feels blocked.

The chapter’s most memorable scene depicts a teenage boy explaining the chaos-theory concept of two-and-a-half dimensions to his depressed father. A piece of paper is two dimensions, and a ball is three. However, if one crumples the paper into a ball, it’s no longer a two-dimensional object, but it’s not quite a three-dimensional one, either. The father is intrigued, and the boy describes the second-and-a half dimension as “like a new planet” and a place to go on holiday. The crumpled paper--the image is used for the chapter’s splash page--is a metaphor for a new way of thinking about the way we relate to others. It illustrates the possibility of a middle ground between the overwhelming input of human interaction and the reductionist approach people rely on to manage it. Judging from this scene, happiness in dealing with others may be found in a synthesis between the facile stereotyping perspective people rely on and an impossible all-encompassing one. Moore's metaphor suggests that there may be a way beyond the alienation that defines contemporary life.

One will never see how Moore might have expanded on that idea. Judging from his other work, it’s impossible to believe he had done more than just scratch its surface. The opening chapters of his From Hell and Watchmen are compelling, but no one could guess those works’ ultimate richness from those chapters alone. The same would have been all but undoubtedly true of Big Numbers. The third chapter brings a fuller understanding of what was lost by the failure to complete more than a quarter of the book. The failure is beyond a disappointment; it’s about as close to an artistic tragedy as one can imagine. But even so, it does not overwhelm the pleasure of going over the 120 completed pages again and again. Even in truncated (and partially adulterated) form, they are dazzling in their wit, craft, and artistry. The knowledge that this beautifully realized and possibly very wise work will never see completion makes Big Numbers perhaps the most bittersweet effort comics will ever know.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Fiction Review: "The String Quartet," Virginia Woolf

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

In “The String Quartet” (1921), Virginia Woolf went beyond simply trying to render the experience of music in stream-of-consciousness terms; she renders the narrator’s state of mind while listening. Along the way, she raises questions about the nature of that experience. Is it aesthetic and recreational, or is it simply a means of escapism? In the end, she answers in favor of the latter. The experience of art has become a respite from the disappointments and alienation of contemporary life.

Woolf begins the story with a string of impressions, much in the way that defined “Monday or Tuesday” and took up the bulk of “An Unwritten Novel.” There’s no rhyme or reason to them from the narrator’s standpoint. She reflects on the various means of transportation to the music recital she is attending, followed by a cataloguing of the minutiae of the news and local hubbub: international treaties, the flu this year, the weather. The impressions then shift from a general contemplation of the outside world to the particulars of the scene at the recital. The narrator considers the snippets of small talk around her, and she cannot help but feel that something is lacking. One thing leads to another, but it never seems to end in fulfillment. She muses:

It’s all a matter of flats and hats and sea gulls, or so it seems to be for a hundred people sitting here well dressed, walled in, furred, replete. Not that I can boast, since I too sit passive on a gilt chair, only turning the earth above a buried memory, as we all do, for there are signs, if I’m not mistaken, that we’re all recalling something, furtively seeking something.

The narrator can impose no order on her thoughts, as she has no passion for the moment, and the worthwhile is unknown and beyond her grasp.

But if order cannot come from within, it is found without. The quartet begins their recital, and the narrator gives herself over to the thoughts the music brings to mind. It is romantic imagery she sees, beginning with thoughts of nature and giving way to fantasies of princes and swordfights and chases through the castle. Chatter from the audience disturbs her, but only briefly. She dismisses it. “The tongue is but a clapper,” she thinks. The scene in the recital hall has taken on a new grace:

The feathers in the hat next me are bright and pleasing as a child’s ratthe. The leaf on the plane-tree flashes green through the chink in the curtain. Very strange, very exciting.

The music provides structure, and if the structure is agreeable, everything in the context it provides becomes comfortable. Unfortunately, that structure dissipates once the music is done. When that happens, the narrator’s feelings of alienation and the inadequacy of life assert themselves more strongly than ever.. On the street outside, she passes by someone who asks, “You go this way?” Her reply is a resigned “Alas. I go that.” Her own life holds no promise for her.

One surmises that Woolf’s point may be that while structure is a necessity for a fulfilling life, it has to be a structure rooted in passion; the structure created by a routinized existence simply won’t do. The latter creates a chaos. Alienation is a mindset of rejection; it doesn’t organize or build, and the consequence is experience treated like detritus, a notion that Woolf dramatizes brilliantly in the story’s opening paragraphs. The enjoyment of art in such a context cannot be a celebration of aesthetic achievement. Art has become the escape from modern alienation; it provides the passion-based structure missing from modern daily life.

The challenge for Woolf as an artist is to find a structure that captures both the joy of music and the disappointment of contemporary life. Her solution was an elegant one; she creates a counterpoint between the two. The opening paragraphs render the alienation of the narrator, and they build the reader’s sense of it quite effectively—one moves from the alienation from life in general to alienation from the particulars of the scene at the recital. Then the music comes in, with the narrator’s thoughts developing from a Wordsworthian love of nature to the sentimental Pre-Raphaelite fantasies of chivalric life long ago. Romanticism defines her mindset, with her musings taking on a progression that has history’s imprimatur. It is a clever touch by Woolf. If one is going to identify a pattern of wayward thinking with an aesthetic approach, why not have it develop along the same lines as the art? Getting back to the development of the story, Woolf moves from the presentation of the music to directly playing it off the thoughts of alienation; the irritating voices of the other audience members punctuate the narrator’s music-inspired reveries. Most impressively, the reveries transform them. As the narrator puts it, “I say all’s been settled; yes, laid to rest under a coverlet of rose leaves.” And when the fantasies reach their crescendo, the story comes full circle, and the narrator finds herself back in the alienating world away from the melodies. Woolf renders alienation and the escapist power of art by creating a prose symphony that dramatizes both.

“The String Quartet” is modernism at its finest. It captures the experience of modern life, doing so through the dramatization of a single perspective with all its idiosyncrasies on full display. Effects are built more through juxtaposition than traditional cathartic structure; the story’s elements are collaged and orchestrated. I cannot quite bring myself to say that it matches the achievements of her greatest novels, but among her short fiction it definitely stands out.

Other reviews of works by Virginia Woolf

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Comics Review: Swallow Me Whole, Nate Powell

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

Nate Powell’s Swallow Me Whole is a tremendously affecting coming-of-age story, but it is not a hopeful one. Most work in this vein fits a particular pattern. It begins with the protagonist as a child or adolescent, and follows him or her through various travails and conflicts. The character comes out the other end as a capable, functioning adult. But Powell’s two protagonists, the stepsiblings Ruth and Perry, have a more difficult road than most. Both suffer from schizophrenia, and while they navigate their way through the usual stages of growing up--first love, the initial steps down the road to a career--they also have to live with the prospect of their condition taking over and destroying what they have. Worse, there is the prospect of going willingly down a self-destructive path if or when the time comes. And there is always the danger of being misdiagnosed, improperly treated, or an emotionally upsetting experience undoing everything medical treatment had largely set right.

The book begins with the two, both of middle-school age, taken by their parent and stepparent (her mother and his father) to see Ruth’s grandmother in the hospital. The old woman is suffering from dementia, but her delusional ramblings strike a chord with Ruth. When the family goes home for dinner that evening, we see why. The dissociative episode she has at the dinner table is only the start. Later, when she has gone to her room for the night, she compulsively reorganizes the jars of insect specimens she collects as a hobby. The specimens talk to her. At one point Ruth muses, “This has been happening all my life. It’s the only way I know our world. Makes sense to me.” The words hang over everything that happens, and they feel achingly true.

Perry has similar problems: a wizard figurine he keeps on the end of his pencil talks to him, and orders him to draw things. He occasionally feels the need to talk back to it, but, in general, his condition is nowhere as extreme as his stepsister’s. However, by the time the two are in high school, her dissociative spells are combining with depression, and her compulsive behaviors border on the debilitating. Following a terrifying hallucination in which she is overwhelmed by flies, her condition is diagnosed and she is prescribed medication to control it.

Ruth, though, is more fortunate than Perry. A doctor he sees around the same time attributes his hallucinations to stress. It’s a painful irony. Perry can function far better without medication than Ruth, but she is the one who receives it, along with the hope of a life unhindered by their condition. And in the months that follow, we see how that plays out. Perry is fairly aimless, while Ruth begins acting on her ambitions and laying the groundwork for a fulfilling life in college and beyond. But Powell's view of Ruth and Perry’s condition to sophisticated to leave things there. The illness can be controlled, but it cannot be cured. The possibility of the disease recurring or worsening sets the stage for a series of reversals that ends in tragedy. One of the stepsiblings ends up “swallowed whole” by madness, while the other will forever live in fear of the same fate.

The story is sensitively realized, and at times Powell’s handling of it seems almost miraculous. He doesn’t play things safe with a detached perspective or polite, understated visuals. He embraces an expressionistic approach that takes one right inside the protagonists’ diseased perceptions. It’s a method that is always at risk of lapsing into sensationalism, but he never falters. The hallucinations and delusions are frequently nightmarish, but they feel as organic a part of the characters’ lives as the more down-to-earth joys and disappointments. The handling of the book’s climactic sections is especially impressive. The descent into madness is given the pacing of a thriller, and the nightmarish climax manages to be both over-the-top and exactly right.

The secret to how it all works may be that Powell’s cartooning style tends to avoid emphasizing a dramatic point. Usually, a cartoonist’s approach to designing panels and pages is to convey exactly what one is to be paying attention to and how one should react. Powell doesn’t do that; his pages and panels are constructed around the principle of indirection. With many of his images, one’s eye has to wander around the composition a bit before one can determine what element one is supposed to be looking at. And if it is immediately clear what information is supposed to be taken in, the overall page design works against the presentation from seeming too pushy. Large areas of black, hatching, or white distract one from giving a particular panel one’s full attention.

Powell has shown no interest in large character ensembles or genre deconstruction, but in many ways his style is similar to filmmaker Robert Altman’s. Both favor unfocused compositions and staging, and Altman’s use of lavish visuals and sound recording to decenter narrative is remarkably similar to Powell’s design strategies. The audience is deliberately given more information than they can immediately process. And Altman and Powell get the same overall effect; their work has a lifelike texture and rhythm that surpasses anything one sees from their peers.

The foundation this style gives Powell allows him to handle just about anything successfully. He can make the quiet and everyday vividly true-to-life, but he can also introduce fantastic and melodramatic elements without making them feel discordant or overwrought. This capacity extends to the inclusion of abstract and hallucinatory imagery. Both are featured in Swallow Me Whole, and both feel organic to Powell's presentation. The ability to slow down the audience and make them work also gives him a remarkable control over pacing; when he shifts from the more meditative moments toward making the narrative hurtle forward, the contrast makes the latter all the more effective. The technique on display is brilliant, and Powell makes it serve his material all the way through. Swallow Me Whole is much more than an affecting look at growing up, or a powerful treatment of the tragedy of mental illness. It is the work of a blossoming comics master.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Fiction Review: "An Unwritten Novel," Virginia Woolf

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

In her best work, Virginia Woolf challenges the reader to reconsider his or her perceptions. She requires one to view familiar things in new ways. These include words, objects, people, and even society’s conventions. In “An Unwritten Novel,” she asks the reader to look in a new way at looking at things in a new way. One is presented with a transformative perspective that doesn’t highlight new aspects of its subjects; it only shows projections of itself. The story dramatizes solipsism.

The narrator is a passenger on a commuter train. At first, she is absorbed in her newspaper, but she finds herself distracted by the faces of the other passengers. She is particularly fascinated by an older woman, whom she calls “Minnie Marsh.” When the train empties out, “Minnie” tries to start a conversation, but the narrator isn’t interested in what she has to say. It goes in one ear and out the other until “Minnie” mentions her sister-in-law. Her contempt for the woman is obvious, and it piques the narrator’s curiosity. But “Minnie” stops talking about her as soon as the narrator shows interest. The narrator’s busybody impulses, though, are too strong not to find another outlet. In her thoughts, she indulges in extremely detailed speculations about “Minnie” and the sister-in-law. These veer into fantasies about “Minnie’s” religious life, and even into possible crimes and past guilt. As the ride continues, the narrator tries to incorporate another passenger (whom she calls “James Moggridge”) into her fantasy scenario about “Minnie.” However, when “Minnie” arrives at her stop, the narrator discovers that her speculations bear no relation to reality, though she can’t help but launch into another round of them based on the new information she finds out.

Near the end, the narrator says of herself, “Life’s bare as a bone.” In Woolf’s view, the narrator’s daydreams are reflective of her own emptiness. She is a completely self-absorbed character. “Minnie’s” efforts to strike up a conversation are fruitless; the narrator lacks the empathy to build a rapport with another person. She is only interested in “Minnie’s” conflicts and what makes the woman upset or uncomfortable. The narrator doesn’t see the world in terms of friendship and other relationships; people exist only for her entertainment. And when they don’t (or won’t) provide it for her, she retreats into daydreams that more than make up for the difference. She is all that exists in her mind; other people are just images to project upon. Her perspective only reveals aspects of herself.

In addition to its insights about the dark side of perspectivism, the story is yet another display of Woolf’s extraordinary sense of craft. It demands that she dramatize the narrator’s state of mind, and she does so through an extremely canny use of pacing effects. As the narrator becomes increasingly absorbed in her daydreams, the flow of words gets faster and more chaotic. At times, the narrator’s speculations take on a rhapsodic quality that occasionally borders on the manic. They are often reminiscent of Henry Miller’s automatist flights in the Tropic novels, but no one should confuse Woolf’s passages with the sort of go-for-broke surrealism that Miller epitomizes. She is as deliberate as he is reckless. The accelerated rhythms are not the result of the author getting carried away; Woolf uses them to render the narrator’s increasingly unrestrained imagination. She creates a crescendo of solipsism’s triumph: the fantasy’s details explode and take over, and their foundation is no longer in view.

The story lays the groundwork for Woolf’s approach in such novels as To the Lighthouse and Mrs Dalloway. “An Unwritten Novel” demands that the reader see narration as a subjective matter--as a reflection of the mindset of the character whose perspective is being presented. “An Unwritten Novel” doesn’t tell us much about “Minnie Marsh” or “James Moggridge.” However, it does tell us a good deal about the narrator. She’s always focused outward, whether it is on the news or her speculations about the lives of “Minnie” and “James”; her own life is always beneath her attention. She doesn’t care about people beyond the opportunities they provide as springboards for her reveries. Her fantasies about others offer no insight; they only dramatize her own imagination. She exemplifies solipsism, and one can consider her the prototype for the characterizations in the above-mentioned novels, which are constructed through juxtapositions of the perspectives of characters who are self-absorbed in their own ways. The novels are symphonies, but they require certain kinds of melodies to give them form. “An Unwritten Novel” is where Woolf first finds the sort of melody that will do.

Other reviews of works by Virginia Woolf

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Comics Review: Swamp Thing: Earth to Earth [Book 5] & Reunion [Book 6], Alan Moore, Rick Veitch, et al.

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

Scriptwriter Alan Moore’s run on Swamp Thing is widely considered to be one of the best--some claim the best--continuing adventure-comics series of the 1980s. Fortunately for readers, it divides quite neatly into three parts.

In the first third, collected in Books One and Two, Moore moved the feature away from its original self-pitying premise. The Swamp Thing, who was once a research scientist named Alec Holland, abandoned his quest to regain his lost humanity. He accepted and embraced his life as it was, and, at the end of the second book, his friendship with the Abby Cable character blossomed into love. The first two books chronicle the character’s realization of himself as a well-adjusted individual.

The second third, known as the “American Gothic” storyline and collected in Books Three and Four, depicts the character’s growth from an individual to a citizen. Moore’s apparent view is that being exclusively preoccupied with one’s own circumstances, no matter how happy they are, is an inadequate engagement with life. One must recognize that one embodies a part that contributes to the whole of society, and that one has an obligation to make both the part and the whole as good as one can. The episodes have Swamp Thing encounter the various evils of human existence--racism, sexism, and environmental pollution, among others--and each contribute to the lesson that one cannot push evil away and compartmentalize it. The dangers it presents can only be minimized with direct engagement. One must also recognize that it is as much a part of any situation as the good.

The final third, which comprises Books Five and Six, is harder to pin down thematically. At times, Moore seems to be using Swamp Thing to tell modern fantasy versions of the Trojan War and the Odyssey. At others, he seems to want to explore the responsibilities of being a god. But it is hard to tell, as Moore repeatedly touches on these ideas and then backs away from them. He drops them entirely at points. This is not to say the collections are poor reads. Moore’s extraordinary sense of craft rarely falters, and the characterizations of Swamp Thing and Abby Cable remain vivid. However, Books Five and Six lack the richness of their predecessors. Moore doesn’t seem to have a strong sense of where he wants to go. It is hard to escape the feeling that he is coasting.

Book Five starts out with a bang. A subplot involving Abby in Book Four takes center stage. Her relationship with Swamp Thing has come to the attention of the local authorities, and she is arrested for breaking the laws against bestiality. The case becomes a media circus, Abby loses her job, and she becomes a pariah in the Louisiana community in which she lives. Disgusted by the way she is treated, she jumps bail and flees to Gotham City. (Swamp Thing is published by DC Comics, and it takes place in the same narrative universe as Batman and Superman.) The Gotham police arrest Abby by mistake, but before they release her, they receive a fugitive warrant from Louisiana. Swamp Thing returns from the “American Gothic” adventure just as she is about to face an extradition hearing. Now possessed of a god-like power to control the world’s vegetation, he demands Abby’s release and declares war on the city after they refuse. What follows is one of the most spectacular might-makes-right battles over a woman in all of storytelling. Agamemnon, Menelaus, and the fleet of a thousand ships are nothing compared to Swamp Thing.

The war on the city is awesomely imagined. Swamp Thing has vegetation overwhelm the city in a way that gives the term “urban jungle” a whole new meaning. (Picture the Manhattan of the film I Am Legend a few centuries down the road, and you’ll have a pretty good idea of what is done.) As things progress, Swamp Thing ups the ante, such as heightening the vegetation’s scent to bring a plague of insects down on the city. Needless to say, Batman launches an offensive against Swamp Thing, and he gets put in his place as well.

The drama matches the spectacle. One sympathizes with Swamp Thing’s anger over the small-mindedness and bureaucratic obstacles that keep Abby from him, but one also respects the city’s refusal to turn her over. Their view is that they can’t just circumvent the law and acquiesce to what amounts to terrorism, despite their doubts that Abby’s relationship with Swamp Thing was somehow criminal. And Moore goes out of his way to make the reader uneasy about Swamp Thing’s actions. He draws explicit parallels between Swamp Thing’s war on Gotham and the destructive, self-righteous rampage of the Woodrue character in Book One. He also emphasizes that Swamp Thing’s actions don’t really solve anything. Abby is freed only after a legal argument successfully points out the absurdity of the crime with which she was charged. (The argument is hilariously witty, and one of the highlights of the book.) Moore also points out that what goes around comes around. Federal agents use the occasion of Abby’s release to ambush Swamp Thing, and they nearly destroy him.

It’s at this point that the material seems to drift. Moore has Swamp Thing find himself far from home after the attack, and the remainder of the episodes are divided up between Abby’s life without him, and his adventures while trying to make his way back to her. (If the Gotham City section was Swamp Thing’s Trojan War, these stories are his Odyssey.) The episodes are well-crafted in themselves, but they don’t build any momentum; they often feel as if Moore was just marking time until his run was complete. He gives us an entire episode written from inside Abby’s grief over Swamp Thing’s apparent death, which is a cheat considering that Swamp Thing isn’t dead. Illustrators Stephen Bissette and Rick Veitch each script an episode in Moore’s stead that adds nothing to the overall. The only notable thing about Swamp Thing’s version of the Great Wanderings is that they begin with his Island of Calypso rather than end there. The most interesting aspect of the latter episodes are the supporting characters Moore introduces to Abby’s life, but he develops them only to kick them to the curb in his finale.

The feeling that Moore’s attention is wavering becomes quite conspicuous in the next-to-last episode. Those who familiar with the Odyssey know that Homer spent a good deal of time building suspense in preparation for Odysseus’ final battle with his wife’s suitors. It was the battle he needed to win in order to reclaim his throne and make his homecoming complete. Swamp Thing’s final clash with his enemies, specifically his revenge on the federal agents who ambushed him in Gotham, is nowhere as developed. It feels rushed, and parts of it seem truncated, as if scenes had to be cut in order to fit it into one issue.

Alan Moore and Swamp Thing wave good-bye to each other. From Swamp Thing: Reunion. Art by Tom Yeates, colored by Tatjana Wood. Copyright 1987, 2003 DC Comics.

The final episode is a shambles. Upon their reunion, Moore has Swamp Thing and Abby decide to abandon the outside world completely, which is a betrayal of the themes of engagement and responsibility that have driven the preceding series. Swamp Thing considers whether his capacity to end famine and hunger means he has a responsibility to do so, and he decides it isn’t his problem. One can’t help but feel that Moore is running away from the moral implications of what he has presented before. Moore’s sense of craft also seems to fail him. He frames the episode around having a stand-in for himself bid Swamp Thing good-bye, but he doesn’t integrate it with the main narrative. He also doesn’t do much to develop the metafictional conceit of giving himself a role in the story. One would only realize the character was a stand-in for Moore if one knows what he looks like. And if one doesn’t recognize him, the scenes featuring the character make little sense. The episode is an extremely disappointing conclusion to Moore’s run.

However, a bad final chapter certainly doesn’t undermine the entire series. Most of the disappointments of Books Five and Six come from considering them relative to what has come before. A similar dynamic affects one’s appreciation of the work of cartoonist/penciller Rick Veitch and inker Alfredo Alcala, who take over from Stephen Bissette and John Totleben. Veitch lacks Bissette’s intensity and command of detail, and Alcala’s rendering is nowhere as nuanced as Totleben’s, but the work is perfectly fine when considered on its own terms.

And that is ultimately what one comes away with. Even with its flaws, Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing was perhaps the most humane and morally conscientious superhero series ever published. Books Five and Six are no exception. Moore may flirt here with questions about the responsibilities of godhood, and he may ultimately turn his back on the theme of the moral necessity of engagement with the world. But he never abandons the emotional heart of the material found in Abby and Swamp Thing’s relationship. One can fault him for not staying true to his themes in these closing episodes, but he always stays true to his characters. The moralist gives way to the storyteller, and if one has to choose between the two, isn't that how one would want it?

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Fiction Review: "Monday or Tuesday," Virginia Woolf

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

Virginia Woolf’s short 1921 piece “Monday or Tuesday” is generally described as a prose poem. Some, though, feel it is better characterized as a prose collage. They don’t feel Woolf sought to illustrate any ideas or create any larger narrative meaning. In their view, the piece functions like a writerly version of a collage painting. The point was to create abstract, non-narrative effects through the juxtaposition of unrelated elements.

My reaction upon reading it is that I don’t agree, largely because the juxtapositions illustrate the same thing: the contrast of light and darkness, of seeing and not-seeing. In the framing paragraphs, for example, these are present in Woolf’s rendering of the heron’s perceptions in flight. The opening paragraph includes the lines “A lake? Blot the shores of it out! A mountain? Oh, perfect--the sun gold on its slopes.” The closing paragraph ends with “the sky veils the stars; then bares them.” In both instances, a moment of darkness is followed by a moment of light. An author does not present similar contrasts in different ways unless he or she is working towards a larger point.

The juxtapositions are not as obvious in the four middle paragraphs, largely because Woolf only explicitly renders the light: “light sheds gold scales”; “the firelight darkening and making the room red”; “Flaunted, leaf-light, drifting at corners”; and “space rushes blue and stars glint.” The idea of darkness is there, though. Woolf closes three of the four paragraphs with the word “truth,” or more specifically, “truth?” Truth is an obvious analogue for light, and one infers from the accompanying question mark that the narrator is not certain if light/truth has been achieved in the impressions the paragraphs render. Darkness is suggested, but not shown, although its presence may be clearer if one equates darkness with another form of not-seeing, that of confusion.

The contrast of truth with confusion also leads one to another analogue of “truth” and “light”: the notion of “understanding.” However, it is hard to see how the idea of “understanding” fits into the overall. Understanding is a term for intellect asserting authority over perception--giving it a context--and that doesn’t occur anywhere in the piece. The narrator’s perspective has little sense of a larger whole to which the catalogued perceptions belong. The framing perspective of the heron doesn’t understand what it sees, either, but the references to the bird being “absorbed in itself” and “indifferent” emphasize that it doesn’t care. It just accepts what it sees, and this is what the narrator recognizes that he or she is doing as well. The middle passages end, before the heron returns, with the words “truth? or now, content with closeness?” The narrator asks, “Do I understand, or do I just accept what is before me?” It can also be read as, “Should I understand, or should I just accept?” Being content is synonymous with acceptance, and happy acceptance at that.

Woolf uses the juxtaposition of the narrator’s perspective with the heron’s to create a deeper understanding of the latter. The simplicity of the bird’s point of view is highlighted. It sees and not-sees, it experiences moments of darkness and light, but it doesn’t concern itself with understanding. It is just “content with closeness,” the condition of perception with acceptance that the narrator ultimately approaches. Creating this epiphany would appear to be the purpose of “Monday or Tuesday,” and that realization of meaning is what makes it a poem instead of a collage. Its contrasts create understanding, not effects for which understanding is beside the point.

Other reviews of works by Virginia Woolf

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Comics Review: The Alack Sinner Stories, José Muñoz & Carlos Sampayo

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

Looking back on the 1970s generation of European cartoonists, it seems like the stars epitomized their own particular genres of potboiler fiction. Jean Giraud was the Western cartoonist. Vittorio Giardino was the master of espionage thrillers. Historical adventure stories were defined by the work of Hugo Pratt. A couple of genres had competing masters, like Milo Manara and Guido Crepax with erotica, and Giraud (under his Moebius pseudonym) and Philippe Druillet with science-fiction/fantasy.

Hard-boiled crime fiction was the province of the Argentina-born, Europe-based artist-writer team of José Muñoz and Carlos Sampayo. (Well, Jacques Tardi, too.) Muñoz and Sampayo’s signature character, Alack Sinner, was a lonely, cynical private detective whose experiences invariably exposed the corruption of the world around him. But Sinner ultimately proved too compelling a character for the crime genre to comfortably contain. The stories never lost their detective-fiction trappings--particularly their noir look and their hard-boiled tone--but they gradually moved away from the mystery-story format in favor of creating a remarkable character study. Seven of the Alack Sinner stories have been published in English--the first four in sequence, and three others from various points in the feature’s run. (Sinner is also a featured character in Muñoz and Sampayo’s Billie Holiday graphic novel, but the book is not primarily a Sinner story.) Even in this incomplete form, Muñoz and Sampayo’s achievement shines through. The crime genre, famous for its terse superficiality, became the setting for the sort of complex characterization typical of literature. The Alack Sinner stories are an accomplished example of crime fiction in comics, but that's not all they are.

The first two Sinner stories, “The Webster Case” and “The Fillmore Case,” are probably the least interesting. They are most notable for the contrast between them and the strip in its mature phase. The stories are conventional private-eye procedurals. The story elements are familiar: intrigue and decadence among the wealthy, the beautiful young woman to be saved, the sarcastic tough-guy detective hero. “The Fillmore Case” is the more compelling of the two. Muñoz and Sampayo originally conceived Sinner as a private detective in the Sam Spade mold. In “The Fillmore Case,” they begin breaking him away from this hackneyed characterization. The story’s opening sequence, which shows Sinner beginning his day, quietly highlights an alienated, depressed aspect to the character. We see him drag himself out of bed and force himself to make coffee and get cleaned up before heading to his office. The clutter of the apartment is emphasized--the overflowing ashtrays, the piled-up dirty dishes, the newspapers and magazines strewn all over the floor. The scene provides a counterpoint to the depiction of Sinner as an ultra-competent man-of-action. He may be extremely capable on the job, but his personal life is a barely maintained shambles.

It’s with the third story, “Viet Blues,” that Muñoz and Sampayo break free of mystery-story conventions and turn the feature into an exploration of Sinner’s character. It tells of his friendship with John Smith III, a young African-American jazz pianist (and Vietnam veteran) who has gotten on the wrong side of the Harlem mob. Sinner and Smith are contrasting studies in loneliness. Sinner’s man-of-action behavior is revealed as an escapist compulsion. He’s looking for trouble as a way to escape his disappointment with his life, whether it’s breaking up a mugging, telling off his clients, or mixing it up with the mobsters who are targeting Smith. Escapist compulsions dog Smith as well: he’s a heroin addict, he plays music to forget, and he hangs out with a pair of black militants for protection, even though he couldn’t care less about their views or their cause. Sinner acts out to escape; Smith retreats inward, although he finally lands on his feet. The story ends on a disturbing note. It’s pointed out to Sinner that his self-righteousness is borne of an impotent sense of justice. He tries to make things right in modest ways, but he’s doomed to disappointment because he inevitably acquiesces to society’s power structure--one in which the law is used as a weapon. In the story’s view, success only comes from making--and finding fulfillment in--one’s rules for oneself.

“Viet Blues” is also a leap forward in terms of the art. Muñoz’s early style clearly shows him to be among the comic-book heirs of Milton Caniff: rich blacks, detailed deep-space compositions, and loose (although highly knowledgeable) draftsmanship. In “Viet Blues,” he sheds the stiffness of his work in the feature’s first two episodes; almost every panel feels more energetic and intense. Muñoz also shows a greater dramatic range. He handles the violence in a Vietnam flashback with a virtuosity that would make the storied war-adventure cartoonist Joe Kubert envious, but he’s equally at home in the somber, understated pathos of the scene in which John Smith III goes cold turkey on his heroin habit. The Muñoz of “Viet Blues” is not yet the expressionistic master of the Joe’s Bar stories, but he’s a first-rate comics dramatist.

Muñoz’s mature style is on dazzling display in “Talkin’ with Joe,” a story from much later in the feature’s run. Longtime comics fans would probably consider “Talkin’ with Joe” the Alack Sinner origin story, but it is probably best viewed as the story in which the Joe’s Bar and Alack Sinner material converged. We first see Sinner as another denizen of the bar, drinking away his troubles into the night. After closing, the owner sits down with him, and he relates the story of how he became a private detective. It’s nothing suspenseful, much less glamorous. Sinner was a Manhattan beat cop who became so demoralized by the self-righteous thuggery of the police force that he quit in disgust. It’s a portrait of a conscience in crisis; the story’s turning point occurs when Sinner has to decide whether to go along with the department’s brutality after his sister is attacked by a gang. Muñoz’s visuals are brilliant. His expressionistic rendering of New York gives the reader the city of one’s worst nightmares: a dark, crowded urban swampland of garbage. Every character besides Sinner and those he confides in is a monstrous grotesque. His fellow police officers are like a chorus of jeering gargoyles. The hallucinatory intensity of this milieu is only heightened by the calm in the scenes of Sinner with those he trusts, such as the bar owner and his sister. Alienation and loneliness have never been dramatized so effectively. It’s a piece that fits seamlessly with the character portraits in the Joe’s Bar series.

The masterpiece of the Sinner stories in English is “Memories,” another story from a later point in the series. It begins with Sinner getting up and looking at some pet fish he bought the day before. He ends up thinking back on various times in his life. The memories are all moments of helplessness. Some are mild, such as his teenage self not knowing what to tell his sister when she first gets her period. Others, though, are horrific, like when Fairfax, one of Sinner’s partners on the police force, murders his family in despair. Muñoz and Sampayo use the pet fish to dramatize Sinner’s emotional state. At first, their faces are benign and their markings harmonious. However, the panels featuring them bookend each new flashback, and the fish become gradually more grotesque. By the end, they’re monstrous, and Sinner imagines them as his dead parents, inviting him to join them, presumably through suicide. Muñoz and Sampayo build the story to a fever pitch, and they end it with an apt metaphor for Sinner’s rejection of despair: he flushes the creatures down the toilet. Muñoz’s expressionistic bravura is superbly used as a narrative counterpoint; the images of the fish provide the beat for the melodies of the flashback scenes, and they gradually heighten the story’s pitch as it progresses. Form and content are inseparable here; “Memories” is a story that would be impossible to execute in any medium besides comics.

The strength of “Memories,” “Talkin’ with Joe,” and “Viet Blues” leave a reader eager for more, as well as willing to overlook the clunkers among the rest of the stories translated into English. (“The Fillmore Case” and “The Webster Case” are examples of the feature before it found its voice, while “Life Ain’t a Comic Strip, Baby” and “North Americans” find Muñoz and Sampayo spinning their wheels.) The knowledge that additional stories are out there untranslated is especially frustrating. The Alack Sinner stories have not done well by Fantagraphics Books, their principal English-language publisher. Low sales caused a Sinner reprint series to be cancelled after five issues, and they also presumably derailed plans for a promised trade-paperback translation of the extended Sinner story "Nicaragua." One hopes it was only because the comics market of the late 1980s and early 1990s wasn’t especially amenable to a serial reprinting of the material in magazine format. We’re in the age of the graphic novel now, and a thick book-length collection of the stories would be especially welcome.

The Alack Sinner stories published in English:

  • "Memories," Prime Cuts #4, Seattle: Fantagraphics Books, August 1987, p. 1-20.
  • "Talkin' With Joe," Sinner #1, Seattle: Fantagraphics Books, October 1987.
  • "The Webster Case," Sinner #2, Seattle: Fantagraphics Books, March 1988.
  • "The Fillmore Case," Sinner #3, Seattle: Fantagraphics Books, May 1988.
  • "Viet Blues," Sinner #4, Seattle: Fantagraphics Books, September 1989.
  • "Life Ain't a Comic Strip, Baby," Sinner #5, Seattle: Fantagraphics Books, September 1990.
  • "North Americans," RAW, Volume Two, Number Three, New York: Penguin Books, 1991, p. 59-73.