Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Short Take: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone [Book 1], J. K. Rowling

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

I am more than a little late in coming to what is the most successful popular-culture phenomenon of our time, but a revived interest in popular fiction--what I prefer to call commuter reading--has compelled me to jump in. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone--titled Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone outside the United States--is the first novel in J. K. Rowling's seven-book, all-ages adventure series. It's a breezily entertaining read. That said, the story is a compendium of clichés. The characters are all recognizable types, and the suspense plotting holds little in the way of surprises. Harry Potter, the boy wizard who was kept ignorant of his heritage, is just the latest iteration of a heroic tradition that includes King Arthur and Luke Skywalker. Rowling is hardly the most graceful prose stylist, either. But her conception of the Harry Potter world is witty. Hogwarts, the principal setting, is an academy for tween and teenage witches and wizards, and Rowling does an entertaining job of reimagining the familiar boarding-school milieu in terms of her fantasy material. And what her prose lacks in elegance, it largely makes up for in pace. The book keeps the reader turning the pages. The conflict with Voldemort, the series' villain, is an edifying one for younger readers. It pits the morality of right and wrong against the amorality of power for its own sake. Children obviously find the material a delight, and few adults will feel they are slumming. It's an all-ages entertainment that lives up to the promise.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Short Take: Captain America: The First Avenger

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

The Marvel Comics patriotic superhero, created in 1941 by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, gets the big-budget, big-screen treatment in Captain America: The First Avenger. The film, directed by Joe Johnston from a script credited to Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeeley, is one of the better comic-book superhero adaptations. The title character, played by Chris Evans, starts out as a sickly, diminutive fellow who is determined to serve the Allied cause in World War II. Repeatedly rejected for enlistment, he catches the eye of an expatriate German scientist (Stanley Tucci), who is part of a government project to create a group of super soldiers. After the scientist’s procedures transform the recruit into a superman, unforeseen circumstances make him the only one of his kind. The script is very canny in its development of the character. The three acts are each structured as stages in his self-realization as a hero. The first covers his transformation; the second has him prove his worthiness as a combat operative (the government initially uses him solely as a propaganda tool); and the third has him triumph with a supreme act of selflessness. The film thankfully doesn’t dawdle over the grand scheme of the Red Skull (Hugo Weaving), the rogue Nazi who becomes the hero’s nemesis. Johnston and the writers are in and out with the exposition, and dive headlong into the solidly executed action scenes. The actors are pretty solid as well. Chris Evans gives the title character an earnest, morally centered determination that seems just right. Stanley Tucci and Tommy Lee Jones are the standouts among the supporting cast. Tucci all but disappears into his role as the scientist, and Jones is splendidly familiar as the hero’s gruff, no-nonsense commanding officer. Special mention should be made of Rick Heinrich’s production design and Anna B. Sheppard’s costuming; both capture the 1940s milieu perfectly.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Comics Review: Nine Ways to Disappear, Lilli Carré

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

Lilli Carré's elegantly packaged collection of short strips is a rich gathering of allegory and surrealist play.

What sets Lilli Carré apart from the bulk of her peers in contemporary comics is her interest in poetic narrative. The few comics creators who make use of poetic technique tend to rely on it for decorative effects: the metaphors and whatnot enhance the material; they don’t define it. Carré’s stories, by contrast, are invariably designed as allegories. The metaphors are the content. Efforts such as “The Carnival” and "The Thing About Madeline" are not constructed in terms of plot suspense or emotional identifications with the characters; the drama is entirely in how Carré builds her tropes and creates new meanings out of them. She’s not the most rounded storyteller; her all but exclusive emphasis on allegory denies her the range of effect creators such as Alan Moore, Eddie Campbell, and Chris Ware have developed. Her work doesn’t achieve that level of richness. But in a field dominated by trudging literalism and surrealist meandering, Carré’s material is a welcome change of pace. One can’t just read her stories; one also has to think one’s way through them, and that demand is invigorating.

Nine Ways to Disappear, a 2009 collection of short strips, is an enjoyable assortment of allegories and surrealist vignettes. It is ostensibly organized around the motif of disappearance, but it is not a thematic departure from Carré’s other efforts. Disappearance was also central to “The Carnival” and "The Thing About Madeline." The constant of Carré’s protagonists is their propensity towards withdrawal in response to the stresses of life, and the characters of those earlier stories are no exception. And there as well as here, she uses fantasy and bleak humor to render the varieties of alienation she depicts. One almost always appreciates her imagination and wit. Sometimes, as with “Dorado Park,” the most accomplished piece in Nine Ways, her allegories hit potent emotional chords.

“Dorado Park” begins with a harsh satire of the circumstances of workers in our capitalist society. The residents of the park are the victims of “cigar smokers” who “spin them around and leave them disoriented on the grass.” They spend their days looking for shelter or a way out. The tenors of the various tropes are reasonably clear. El Dorado is the mythical city made out of gold, so the park is defined as the place of the mythical happiness money brings. The cigar smokers are the business owners--a rather clichéd trope there--and their victims are the workers they exploit. All the workers can hope for is a way out of that environment, either by finding an independent livelihood or journeying out into the unknown. Carré presents working for others as a demoralizing trap.

The story then introduces a counterpoint: two sisters who live in a nearby house and support themselves with a joke-writing business. It’s a happy contrast, made up of autonomy, a mutually supportive family relationship, and fulfilling work defined by laughter and creativity. But as quickly as Carré sets this divergent situation up, she undermines it. A wedge comes between the sisters in the form of a boyfriend. This begins the funniest section of the story, as Carré presents the analogues for love, romance, and sex through the prism of the unattached sister’s hostile eye. The boyfriend’s romantic leanings are portrayed as taking to the sister “like an overly affectionate cat that wouldn’t leave her lap,” and the sound of sex between the two is described as “wild animals scratching at the door.” This is followed by a hilarious panel of the boyfriend simultaneously attacking and fending off the paramour sister with a chair. In the metaphors that follow, Carré shows the sisters becoming gradually more estranged, until they finally no longer exist to the other. The unattached sister is ultimately forced out of the house. The concluding panel is disturbingly poignant: the unattached sister enters the park, with the accompanying caption reading, “I knew what I was getting into.” The story’s overall tenor is clear enough. A family is a haven, but its members eventually seek fulfillment elsewhere. Those left behind are ultimately forced to find new connections, and the connections fostered by work and career may offer no fulfillment. However, there also may be no choice but to go along, as the road of romantic relationships may prove even lonelier. The allegory of “Dorado Park” is darkly, achingly resonant.

The other allegorical strips are nearly as effective. The most lucid (and probably for many the most enjoyable) is “If I Were a Fish,” which uses the personification of a storm drain to illustrate the idea that no matter how much one has, one always focuses on that which falls beyond one’s grasp. “The Pearl” dramatizes that value is relative; the worth of something is what the possessor projects onto it, and the possessor may have no understanding of what he or she has until it is too late. “The Neighbor” shows how associations, no matter how unique the original circumstances, can follow one throughout life. “Sleepwalking,” which uses the activity of the title as a metaphor for disengagement, is probably the most developed of the stories after “Dorado Park.” The weakest of the strips is “Wide Eyes,” which shows the attractions in a romantic relationship becoming oppressive as they become a metonymy for the relationship’s pressures. Carré tries to end it on an ironic note--she draws an equivalency between the trope for the oppressions and the one for the attractions--but it doesn’t quite come off. Still, no matter how much the ending falters, the piece works well until that point. All of these strips are worth returning to repeatedly; Carré’s tropes are frequently wondrous, and there’s an enduring pleasure in seeing them built into a larger, coherent whole.

As I indicated above, not all of Nine Ways is allegorical in nature. Three of the pieces--“What Am I Going to Do?,” “The Sun,” and “Wait”--are surrealist exercises in metamorphosis effects. “The Wait,” which at the end refers back to “If I Was a Fish,” is probably the most entertaining, although more erudite readers will probably get a kick out of “What Am I Going to Do?” and its allusion to the great minotaur trope of 1930s surrealism. These strips may seem somewhat out of place when considered relative to the narrative density of the other pieces, but they’re spaced out from one another in the collection. If one is reading the book in a single sitting, one may find the lulls they provide refreshing. One may also enjoy their similarity to Carré’s animation efforts; they are designed around the visual breakdown of movement, and as such, they could easily function as storyboards for her films.

However, as dissimilar as these strips are from the allegories, they aren’t discordant in terms of her visual scheme. The work in the book follows a very specific format. The book’s dimensions are square. The panels are all the same size, and there is only one to a page. Each story is given a unique decorative border with which to frame the panels. The blank pages between the stories are patterned, with a similar though distinct design used for the blank pages in the front and end matter. Contrasting (though muted) monochromes are used for the jacket exteriors and interiors. The drawing and frequently dense rendering of the panels is of course superb. The artwork and design choices all come together to make the physical book a quite elegant objet d’art.

In short, Nine Ways to Disappear is a fine addition to Lilli Carré’s groing library of work. It’s enjoyable to look at as well as to read. And the reading is richer than nearly anything else offered in comics today.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Short Take: Alfie

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

Alfie’s title character, a swaggering Cockney ladies’ man, may be Michael Caine’s greatest role. Caine makes Alfie both charming and repellent. He plays this cynical womanizer with bravado, and he’s nothing less than riveting. His skill is considerable. Like Laurence Olivier’s Richard III, the character addresses the audience with asides throughout the action of the scenes, and Caine paces the shifts so deftly that one watches him all but in awe. His performing charisma is imperative, as the film would be oppressive otherwise. Bill Naughton’s script, based on his play, is not the least bit interested in entertaining the audience with Alfie’s rakish behavior; the purpose is to indict him for it. The audience’s nose is rubbed in the character’s misogyny from the outset. He takes pride in casting women aside when they become inconvenient, and his relationships with his kept “birds”--the ones he shacks up with--seem based entirely on breaking down the women’s self-esteem. The scenes with the live-in girlfriends (Julia Foster and Jane Asher) don’t have a moment of levity in them. The greatest pathos is reserved for Vivien Merchant’s character, a lonely housewife whose dalliance with Alfie results in an unwanted pregnancy. After Caine, the liveliest performer is Shelley Winters. Her scenes are the only ones shaped for ribald laughs, and she plays them with zest. (She’d have been a great Wife of Bath.) The director, Lewis Gilbert, seems to think more in theater terms than cinematic ones. He doesn’t make the extensive London location shooting feel integral, and his staging of a barroom fight is hopeless. But his handling of the actors in the dialogue scenes is largely impeccable. He deserves a great deal of credit for making Caine’s triumph possible. The fine jazz score was written and performed by Sonny Rollins. Burt Bacharach and Hal David wrote the mediocre title song, performed by Cher, with Sonny Bono producing. A remake of the film starring Jude Law was released in 2004.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Fiction Review: "A Simple Heart," Gustave Flaubert

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

Flaubert's classic short story is a masterful blend of naturalistic detail, sublimely poetic effects, and deceptively simple prose.

Gustave Flaubert's "A Simple Heart" is part of the Three Tales collection. This review refers to the A. J. Krailsheimer translation, published by Oxford University Press.

“A Simple Heart,” the opening story in Gustave Flaubert’s 1877 Three Tales collection, is generally considered a masterpiece of the short-story form. It’s not hard to understand why. It combines richly observed detail with spare, deceptively simple language to create what is both a perfectly realized character study and a dazzlingly poetic rendering of faith and its fulfillment. What’s most impressive about it is Flaubert’s ability to weave both the realistic and the poetic together.

The protagonist of “A Simple Heart” is Félicité, a housekeeper of peasant background who works for a widow in the Normandy region of France. The story is an account of Félicité’s life, and the bulk of it is set in the first half of the nineteenth century. Flaubert divides it into five sections. The first introduces Félicité as the servant of the widow Madame Aubain. The second tells of the hardship of Félicité’s early life, how she came to work for Madame Aubain, and her experiences helping to raise Madame Aubain’s children. In the third, Félicité discovers her faith. She also experiences tragedy with the deaths in both Madame Aubain’s family and her own. Madame Aubain dies in the fourth section, and Félicité’s last days are recounted in the fifth.

Flaubert constructs the story around loss, specifically how Félicité deals with the losses of those she loves over the course of her life. He pays scrupulous attention to pace: her relationships with those she loses are treated with increasing detail as the story mounts. Félicité is orphaned at an early age; Flaubert gives each of the parents a sentence. Her fiancée marries another woman; the account of his and Félicité’s relationship is given two pages. Approximately half the story is given over to Félicité’s relationships over time with Virginie, Madame Aubain’s sickly daughter, and Victor, Félicité’s nephew, who dies after going to sea. And Flaubert pays the most attention to Félicité’s relationship with her pet parrot Loulou, which takes up the latter part of the story. She loves the bird, and after its death, she has it stuffed and mounted. She's more devoted to the bird after its death than while it was alive, but Flaubert doesn’t use the parrot to belittle Félicite in the reader’s eyes. Nor does he use it to rub one’s nose in pathos. He doesn’t intend for Félicité’s devotion to the bird to be seen as ridiculous or sad. Apart from Madame Aubain, the parrot is the last of the heartfelt losses in Félicité’s life, and Flaubert, in some of the most extraordinary writing I’ve ever encountered, transforms it into a beatific vision in her deathbed scene. He effects a complete reversal of meaning: a trope for loss becomes one of consummation.

This is achieved through a virtuoso use of metonymy, which is the assigning or transforming of meaning by simple association. It usually occurs with something of proximity. Flaubert is canny enough not to make it feel imposed on the story. He makes metonymy intrinsic to Félicité’s perceptions, and those perceptions in turn guide her actions. This first becomes apparent in the passage in which she finds her faith. The identification of Christ as a lamb leads her to associate that identification with real-life lambs, and she loves them more as a result. As the story goes on, there are many other metonymic associations, such as her identification of Virginie with a plush hat, which she keeps as a remembrance after the girl’s death. Félicité's affection for Loulou is borne of her love for her nephew. She identifies the bird with the Americas, which was where Victor was going when he died. The parrot functions as a living trope for the family member she lost.

Flaubert’s skill with metonymy is apparent in how he repeatedly transforms the parrot’s meaning in Félicité’s eyes. The bird starts as an emotional signifier for her nephew. After it dies, and Félicité takes it to be stuffed, the taxidermist takes so long that she becomes convinced she will never see it again. But the mounted bird eventually arrives, and its return signifies everlasting love to her. The parrot is the first thing she has loved that has left her and then come back. It will always be with her, like her religious faith, and she begins to associate it with that faith as well. Flaubert clearly illustrates it in this passage:

In church she always gazed upon the Holy Spirit, and noticed he looked something like the parrot. The likeness seemed still more evident in a popular print of Our Lord’s baptism. […] They became associated in her mind, so that the parrot became sanctified from this connexion with the Holy Spirit, which in turn became more lifelike and readily intelligible in her eyes. […] Félicité would look at the print as she said her prayers, but with a sidelong glance from time to time at the bird.

Félicité’s identification of her bird with holiness leads her to have it placed on an altar of repose for Good Friday. She lays on her deathbed as the altar with her bird passes by in the procession, and with her smelling of the smoke from the swinging censers, Flaubert effects the story’s ultimate metonymic transformation: the parrot goes from being a personal trope for the Holy Spirit to Félicité’s vision of the Spirit itself. It’s a transformation that ranks with those in Ovid and Dante, and unlike their efforts, this depiction of the uncanny isn't one of horror. It's an image of divine fulfillment.

Perhaps even more impressive than Flaubert’s metonymic dazzle is his ability to create a context in which it works. The story never seems overblown or pretentious in its handling of these effects. Partly this is because Flaubert keeps his language very plain, but it’s largely because Félicité’s characterization is so precisely evoked. Flaubert makes it entirely believable that she thinks in these terms. If her associations and identifications seem fanciful in a simpleminded kind of way, it’s because in many respects she is a simpleminded person. That's not to say Flaubert ever condescends to her (something that, given his other work, one might think him inclined to do). Félicité is portrayed as having a considerable pragmatic intelligence. Her housekeeping skills make Madame Aubain the envy of the neighbors. She’s described as being better at haggling and negotiating prices than anyone else. And her cleverness in saving Madame Aubain and the children from a rampaging bull is the stuff of local legend. She’s just not reflective, and she doesn’t think about abstract matters in a critical way. She believes in what she believes in, and makes the abstract associations she makes, and there’s all there is to it.

This depiction is fully in keeping with Flaubert’s realist aesthetic and its emphasis on observation. Working-class people tend to be smart in pragmatic terms, while those in the upper classes are at their best with abstract matters. It’s as perceptive a portrayal as Flaubert’s extraordinary rendering of the interior of the widow’s home, or the various aspects of the Normandy countryside. “A Simple Heart" combines precisely detailed realist depictions with bravura poetic treatments of the supernatural, and it does so in a way that makes them seem all of a piece. It locates the sublime in mundane existence more effectively than any story I can think of. It’s arguably Flaubert’s masterpiece, and it deserves its standing among the great works of literature.

Reviews of other works by Gustave Flaubert:

Short Take: Black Swan

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

“Make it visceral.” That’s the goal of the director (Vincent Cassel) of the production of Swan Lake in the 2010 film Black Swan. Those words also seem to be guiding the film’s director, Darren Aronofsky. The story is about a New York ballet dancer (Natalie Portman) who is preparing to play the show's lead. The drama is in her confronting her insecurities, although wrestling with insanity might be more accurate. The script, credited to Mark Heyman, Andrés Heinz, and John McLaughlin, has a conventionally literary means of portraying her conflicts: it gives her a number of doppelgängers whom she must either come to terms with or defeat. One is the domineering mother (Barbara Hershey) who abandoned her own dance career after becoming pregnant. Another is the dance company’s former star (Winona Ryder), whose washed-up, suicidal bitterness represents what the Portman character fears for herself. A third is a free-spirited rival dancer (Mila Kunis), who is conniving to take over her part. And a fourth is a confident, sexually assertive vision of herself, who embodies the qualities she must tap into in order to successfully play her role. One would think there was already angst and melodrama to spare, but Aronofsky heightens things further with a parade of body-horror effects. Portman’s scenes with Hershey and Ryder invariably climax with gruesome images of pain and injury. Her scenes with Kunis trade these for sex, but one is so conscious of her character giving over to self-destructiveness that one watches them with almost as much dread. And the scenes with her alone are perhaps the most disturbing. She is shown vomiting, obsessing over a bloody rash on her shoulder blade, and hallucinating copious bleeding from her fingers and toes. Even the rehearsal scenes are unpleasant to watch. Aronofsky and his cinematographer, Matthew Libatique, keep them very harshly lit: the women’s muscles and sinews appear to flex and strain after the skin’s been flayed off. The performances are a mixed bag. Aronofsky has Natalie Portman overdo her character’s high-strung manner; she goes through almost every scene looking like she’s on the verge of a breakdown. It’s hard to believe a dance company would employ such a basket case, much less cast her in a lead. Barbara Hershey and Winona Ryder surprisingly don’t make much of an impression. But Mila Kunis is quite enjoyable as the rival; she has a fluid, good-humored sauciness that keeps one looking forward to her. The best performance, though, comes from Vincent Cassel as the dance company’s charismatic, manipulative director. He dominates every scene he’s in, and he makes it look effortless. In contrast, Aronofsky is trying too hard. He may think he’s offering a baroquely expressionist character study, but the film is just a gaudy, repellent spectacle--like a David Cronenberg movie without the intelligence.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Short Take: Deep End

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

Director Jerzy Skolimowski’s Deep End turns the sexual coming-of-age comedy inside out. It's a potent blend of psychodrama, incisive social detail, and poetic filmmaking. A working-class London teenager (John Moulder-Brown) takes his first job as an attendant in a seedy city bathhouse, where he quickly becomes infatuated with a pretty co-worker a few years his senior (Jane Asher). The co-worker is a promiscuous tease. She’s engaged, but she's also having an affair with the bathhouse swim teacher, and she has no compunction about playing with the teenager’s feelings for her. Reserved and sexually uptight, he becomes obsessive and begins to stalk her, with ultimately tragic results. Skolimowski takes the viewer inside the boy’s psyche with a striking array of sexually charged poetic visuals. The green walls of the bathhouse become red as his obsession with his coworker intensifies, and its swimming pool becomes both the catalyst and setting of his fantasies. An extended sequence in which he follows the coworker through Soho’s nightlife makes the leap from the poetic into the hallucinatory. Moulder-Brown’s performance is engaging and unstudied even in his character's most disturbed moments. Asher is at least as impressive: the tease’s good-humored, spontaneous charm and her often vicious whimsy feel as if they’re all of a piece. The two do a fine job of conveying the romantic-comedy currents necessary to make the film’s final irony work. But Skolimowski’s crowning achievement is his ability to ground everything in the story’s social milieu. The film is very much a portrait of the sleazy side of “Swinging London,” and it subtly dramatizes how the libertine environment--the open sexuality, the porn theaters, the bathhouse's debauched atmosphere--can abet the perversion of adolescent infatuation into madness. The screenplay is credited to Skolimowski, Jerzy Gruza, and Boleslaw Sulik. The picture has been notoriously difficult to see in the almost 50 years since its release, and is only now coming back into view.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Short Take: Lord Love a Duck

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

Tuesday Weld gives a terrific comic performance as Barbara Ann Greene, the teen beauty at the center of director George Axelrod’s Lord Love a Duck. Barbara Ann dreams of success and for everyone to love her. The day before classes start at her new school, she meets Alan (Roddy McDowell), an eccentric genie of a boy who makes it all happen. With Alan’s help, Barbara Ann connives her way into a new wardrobe, the school’s most popular clique, a job as the principal’s secretary, a marriage to a wealthy husband, and finally stardom as a beach-movie leading lady. The flirty ingenuousness, the little-girl drawl, the glee at surprises and acquiring things--they all make Weld’s Barbara Ann irresistible. There’s no doubt she’s a girl for whom men would do anything. The film is at its funniest when she guilelessly baits, hooks, and reels them in. Weld's knack for comic boredom and petulance is also a delight. It's too bad the film is otherwise a poorly executed mess. There’s no momentum to the story, and the satirical jabs at 1960s culture are much too broad to be effective. Axelrod’s staging is iffy by the standards of TV sitcoms. He also directs most of the cast to overdo everything. Some of Weld’s best moments--such as when Barbara Ann shops for sweaters with her father (Max Showalter), or her job interview with the school principal (Harvey Korman)--are nearly wrecked by her co-stars' mugging. There are also occasional problems with tone: Lola Albright gives a fine dramatic performance as Barbara Ann’s self-destructive mother, but it's completely out of place in a madcap comedy. The screenplay, credited to Larry H. Johnson and Axelrod, is based on the novel by Al Hine.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Comics Review: American Flagg!: Lustbusters, Alan Moore, Don Lomax, and Larry Stroman

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

Alan Moore's guest storyline for Howard Chaykin's '80s cyberpunk adventure feature is marred by substandard art, but it compensates with cleverness and wit.

Alan Moore is best known as the scriptwriter of, among other works, the graphic-novel masterpieces Watchmen and From Hell. The fame of those books and their grim tone often obscures that he is also a first-rate humor writer. A good example is his 1985 guest serial for Howard Chaykin’s cyberpunk adventure comic American Flagg!. (The story was featured in issues 21 through 27 of the series. I’ve taken the liberty of calling it Lustbusters after the final episode’s cover copy. The storyline doesn’t have an overarching title.) Moore manages a neat trick: he does a hilarious job of lampooning Chaykin’s work, but he also manages to make the story a comfortable fit with the feature. He has such a strong feel for Chaykin’s characters, themes, and milieu that he can extend his parody for laughs at the feature’s expense yet snap it back when necessary to keep the story on track. He isn’t quite able to duplicate Chaykin’s tone; the hard-boiled edge of Chaykin’s work is gone. But Moore often manages to outdo Chaykin in terms of wit and cleverness. American Flagg! is notorious for being an adventure feature that no one but Chaykin could handle properly, but Moore almost pulls it off. The only thing holding it back is the inept, unimaginative art by Don Lomax and Larry Stroman.

American Flagg!, for those not familiar with it, is set in the America of 2031. A series of international calamities has led the political and business elites of the U. S. to relocate to a colony on Mars. Calling themselves the Plex, they control the country’s remaining communities through the Plexus Rangers, their law-enforcement wing. Additionally, they provide all legitimate television programming, which is mostly comprised of porn, animated cartoons, and reality shows. The feature’s hero, Reuben Flagg, is a former TV star turned Plexus Ranger who oversees the Chicago area. Disgusted by the corruption of the Plex, he both keeps the peace and gradually works to undermine their authority. Chaykin keeps things lively with effective adventure plotting, stunning visual design, and an often hilarious mix of political and media satire.

Moore, stepping into Chaykin’s shoes as scriptwriter, starts by making explicit what was only implied in Chaykin’s episodes. Mark Thrust, the adventure show Flagg used to star in, is also pornography. Part of its formula is to have cliffhanger moments turn into sex scenes. Moore's plot centers on what happens in Kansas when the porno moments are followed by ad breaks. The commercials for dishwashing soap contain some unfortunate subliminal messages. These prompt a run on the product, and it quickly becomes apparent that consumers are, shall we say, finding other uses for it than washing their dishes. Things are complicated when a porn tycoon realizes the connection between the subliminals, the soap sales, and the rise of the aberrant activity. He arranges for the subliminals to be broadcast 24/7, and soon the entire population of Kansas is in the throes of rampant erotomania. The members of the series’ supporting cast come one-by-one to investigate, but they all fall victim to the sex-crazed populace. It's ultimately up to Flagg to save the day.

Moore’s satirical eye doesn’t miss a single aspect of the series. The porny atmosphere of Chaykin’s milieu is taken to its limits. The episodes all star a specific American Flagg! character, and Moore does a delightful job of lampooning their idiosyncrasies. He has a grand time dreaming up the various sex scenarios, whether it’s the assorted Mark Thrust clips, or the multitude of depravities the people of Kansas concoct for themselves. (They get a good deal more imaginative than questionable uses of dish detergent.) But Moore never loses sight of the adventure elements of the story, and he even finds space for extended send-ups of George Herriman’s Krazy Kat and Harold Gray’s Little Orphan Annie. His sense of timing never fails him; the story is hilarious throughout.

The only letdown is Lomax and Stroman's artwork. (Stroman penciled the first three installments, with Lomax inking. Lomax penciled and inked the remaining four.) They make no effort to lampoon Chaykin’s design-heavy visual style or the posterish look of his pages. It may be for the best; their artwork is below what one would like to think is a professional standard. The figures are incompetently drawn, everything is over-rendered, and none of the visuals are especially convincing. The wit of Moore’s scripting is the only thing that saves the story. One comes to accept the inept artwork as approximations of his ideas, and gives it the benefit of the doubt.

What may be most impressive about this lark at Chaykin’s expense is that it really isn’t a departure from Moore’s usual style. He has always analyzed existing story material in terms of its discourses and absurdities, ultimately rebuilding it in ways that captures the heart of the material while managing to improve on it. The major difference here is that he doesn’t minimize the absurdities in Chaykin’s work; he plays them to the hilt. It's a shame the artwork wasn't worthy of his script. This might have been seen as one of the great comics parodies.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Comics Review: Batman & Robin, Book One: Batman Reborn, Grant Morrison, Frank Quitely, and Philip Tan

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

The first storyline in scriptwriter Grant Morrison's reworking of the Dynamic Duo is probably the most enjoyable superhero tale of the last couple of years, and this includes movies as well as comics.

Given a choice between the current crop of costumed-superhero comics and the movies that feature the characters, one is probably better off going with the movies. As bad as the films have increasingly gotten, they’re still designed to entertain a general audience. Contemporary superhero comics cater to their cult. The narratives are often so bogged down in references to previous storylines that they’re all but incomprehensible. The art is generally impersonal and hideously over-rendered. Taken as cartooning, it is often astonishingly inept. If the narrative baggage from prior episodes hasn’t hopelessly confused the reader, the unfathomable visual storytelling is usually able to finish the job. And don’t get me started on the creepy sexual attitudes that inform most of the writing and drawing.

Batman & Robin, Book One: Batman Reborn, scripted by Grant Morrison, with art by Frank Quitely and Philip Tan, is quite a pleasant surprise. (Quitely illustrates the first of the book's two stories; Tan draws the second.) The book is not only readable, it’s actually entertaining, particularly in Quitely’s half. Morrison starts with a solid premise: Bruce Wayne is dead, and the adult Dick Grayson--better known to most of us as Robin--assumes Batman’s cape and cowl. He is joined by a new Robin, who is Wayne’s 10-year-old son. The basic concept is developed well. Grayson’s conflicts are not only with the criminals the two fight. He also has to deal with his insecurities about living up to the crime-fighting standard set by the elder Wayne. His challenge is not only to prove himself to his own satisfaction, he also has to earn the respect of the police department, who quickly realize he’s not the same Batman, as well as that of Wayne’s son, who constantly complains that his father would have done this or that differently. Frank Quitely's cartooning has a refreshing clarity, and the plot in his storyline is an enjoyably lurid pulp story. The villain creates female accomplices by addicting them to an identity-destroying narcotic. Further, he gets his sadistic jollies by grafting doll-like masks to their faces. It’s up to the heroes to stop him before he holds Gotham City hostage with an aerosol version of the drug. As far as Batman stories go, this is pretty good.

The second story unfortunately isn’t as successful. Philip Tan’s work is a good deal better than that of most superhero cartoonists these days, but his efforts lack the clarity and flow of Quitely’s pages. Morrison’s story also gets bogged down in the problems that undercut the work of most contemporary superhero-comics writers. The new Batman and Robin have to contend with a rival costumed vigilante who isn’t just content to capture criminals; his preference is to kill them as well. It turns out this new vigilante isn’t exactly a new character. He apparently was Robin at some point in between Grayson’s tenure and that of Wayne’s son, which I gather fits in with some Batman stories that go back a couple of decades. Unfotrunately, the more Morrison weaves this older material together with the new, the less one cares. This old-new character is an unpleasant bore, and one wishes it didn’t take so long for him to be sidelined. The villain everyone’s chasing isn’t very inspired, either. He’s called the Flamingo, and he’s such a tired knock-off of the Joker that one sits there wondering why Morrison and Tan didn’t just go with the original.

I have no idea if this series regains its footing with the storylines that appear after the two collected here. Chances are it doesn’t; superhero comics have an even worse record for diminishing returns than series television. But if one has a hankering for contemporary costumed-superhero fare, one isn’t going to do much better than this collection’s first half. If nothing else, it’s an improvement over what the movie people have been doing with the genre over the last couple of years.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Fiction Review: "Your Fate Hurtles Down at You," Jim Shepard

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

Jim Shepard combines metaphor, philosophical insight, and character study in a masterful piece of short fiction.

"Your Fate Hurtles Down at You," by Jim Shepard, was originally published in Electric Literature 1 (July 30, 2009). It is featured in his 2011 collection, You Think That's Bad. One can also find it among the selections in The PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories 2011, edited by Laura Furman.

Jim Shepard’s “Your Fate Hurtles Down at You” is a marvelous short story. It uses a single encompassing metaphor for its philosophical foundation, from which it builds a narrative that functions as an analogue in microcosm. The metaphor’s vehicle is also incorporated as a literal element. And from there it creates an extremely poignant character study. One is both moved by the story’s meanings and electrified by Shepard’s skill in putting it together. Who knew a story about studying avalanches could be so affecting?

The story’s present tense is 1939, set in and around Davos, Switzerland. Eckel, the narrator, is a member of a team that is studying the phenomena of avalanches on the slopes of the Weissfluhjoch summit. The team is there at the behest of the Swiss government, which is looking to develop avalanche defense measures. Eckel is the only team member who isn’t a scientist or engineer. He describes himself as “the touchingly passionate amateur,” and his interest in avalanches is a highly personal one.

In an extended flashback, the reader learns why. When Eckel was sixteen, he and his twin brother Willi had gone on a weeklong school ski outing. Their class had left the hotel just before a warning of avalanche conditions had arrived. Willi and most of their group had been caught in an avalanche as Eckel watched from above. Willi was one of those rescued, but he died a few days later. A sense of guilt haunts Eckel afterward; a cut from one of his skis is what triggered the avalanche. He and his mother become obsessed with the phenomena in the years that follow, and the erudition of his mother’s research journals get him selected for the Weissflujoch study team.

It becomes quickly apparent that Shepard intends the avalanche as a metaphor for life’s randomness, and how that randomness can overwhelm one. Sometimes things just happen; they come out of nowhere, and there’s no rhyme or reason to them. As one of Eckel’s fellow team members says near the story’s end, “an avalanche’s release depends on a system of factors so complicated that prediction involves as much divination as science.” Life is like that, too; it's a pithy analogy to make. Hindsight is 20/20, but one can never truly anticipate what will happen. Something as innocent as shoveling snow from a roof can start an avalanche that destroys a local church. And, as in Eckel’s case, an avalanche can change the direction of one’s life. People can try to assign blame, such as when the parents of Eckel’s classmates blame the wholly innocent teacher for their children’s deaths, but such reactions are folly. In life, one never knows what to expect.

Eckel is overcome by another avalanche of sorts on a supply trip to Davos. Shepard amusingly dresses this up in another metaphor--here it is slipping on the ice and falling down the steps--but this is an avalanche just the same. Eckel encounters Ruth, a female classmate that he and his brother were both infatuated with, and who was standing with him when the catastrophe occurred. She left to visit her grandparents shortly afterward and never returned. She’s now a schoolteacher in Davos, and over coffee, she confesses what happened. During a camping trip with some classmates about a month before Willi’s death, she and Willi had slept together. She had become pregnant. Eckel doesn’t know how to deal with the emotions this stirs up. His predicament is compounded by Ruth’s tentative signals that she’s now interested in a relationship with him.

It’s at this point that the story makes its full transition into character study. Eckel becomes fixated on Ruth, and his fixation is borne of the fact that the feelings she stirs are unpleasant and, as feelings invariably are, beyond his control. He’s hurt by the knowledge that she passed him over in favor of his brother. That pain is also implicitly caught up in the jealousy he feels towards Willi, as well as the guilt he feels as a result. His anxiety over her apparent present interest in him only escalates things. He responds by trying to dominate her. He insists they meet when he wishes, and then on a moment’s notice. He demands she tell him more about the pregnancy and whatnot, and then often answers for her before she can respond. Inside he’s belittling himself, running away from the prospect of building something with her now.

The pathos of this is made all the more moving by the reader’s recognition that Eckel responded to the avalanche that killed his brother in almost exactly the same way. His interest in the phenomena isn’t the result of curiosity so much as it is the consequence of wanting to control a circumstance that has affected his life so profoundly. He wants knowledge of avalanches in order to defeat them. Deep down, he wants to ensure one never has the power to upend his life in that manner again. Ironically, he has only given the avalanche the control that he sought to undermine with his pursuits.

Shepard resolves the story on something of an upbeat note: Eckel and his team rescue a pair of Germans who are trapped on a slope. They do so with equipment and procedures that have been developed from their studies of snow and avalanches. It’s heartening to know that knowledge is possible, and that challenges can be confronted and possibly mastered. But at the same time, Shepard remains true to the story’s guiding insight: one can be overwhelmed by circumstances without notice, and nothing one can do can prevent it. The characters aren’t allowed to forget this, either; one of the team members sets off an avalanche by a step in the wrong place. No one is harmed, but the story concludes with Eckel imagining both surviving an avalanche and dying in one. The way he sees himself in both situations are apt tropes for his character. These also provide a stirring epiphany for the reader: perhaps self-knowledge is the most that can be hoped for.

Poetry Review: "Oh dont," Kelle Groom

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

Kelle Groom offers a lovely--and potent--meditation on the capacity of images to prompt echoes in one's thoughts.

The poem "Oh dont," by Kelle Groom, originally appeared in Witness XXII (2009). It is also featured in her collection Five Kingdoms, as well as in The Best American Poetry 2010, edited by Amy Gerstler and David Lehman.

The poem's language emerges from impressions of handwriting and pictures. The thoughts these spark go from meditations on the image to meditations on memories, climaxing with an remembrance of loss. There is also the attendant frustration that one perhaps could have done more. It’s a demanding read. Groom trusts the reader to intuit the connections between the images and the narrator’s reflections upon them.

The poem begins with the text of a photograph’s title plate, “—Albumen silver print attributed to F. M. Parkes & Reeves," which would seem to set the stage as clearly as an establishing shot in a movie. But it’s simply the starting point for a series of associations. That text is written in an odd script that suggests a ghost’s hand, which in turn suggests a paradox: handwriting written without hands. This is followed by the contemplation of a ghost’s point of view, trying to respond to the people death has cost it. A note in ethereal handwriting is all it can muster. It’s a moving reversal of perspective, reminding the reader that the grief of loss may not be restricted to one’s thoughts: the one lost, even the dead, grieves, too.

Groom then transforms her contemplation of loss from both sides of life’s divide. It becomes a reunion between the narrator and a lover who has passed away. The narrator thinks back on the totems of the romance--her lover’s guitar, his songs, his trusting her with knowledge of a place holding a most personal memory--and suddenly her lover is with her again. She realizes her thoughts are folly. The recognition is eloquently expressed with the metaphor “the woman in me still driving by.” But on a certain level the narrator doesn’t care. Her mind is entranced with another trope, that common but always lovely symbol of love’s happiness: the dance. But her feelings of loss reassert themselves. Presence becomes absence, and she reminds herself “no one was dancing.”

The narrator, though, can’t turn from the loss, and the most painful aspects of it are then recounted. The reader is first confronted with nearly inscrutable details from her memory: “cement to my thigh,” climbing stairs, and breathing that takes in the burning. The narrator shifts attention to other images. The first is even more inscrutable than the memory flashes. (Groom’s remarks in The Best American Poetry 2010 indicate it is a description of Marc Chagall’s 1914 painting The Lovers (Vision). Click here. The poem might be stronger if this had been made more explicit.) The memories then reassert themselves, first with pleas of “Oh don’t keep coming?/Oh don’t stop?,” and then further associations are sparked by the ghostly writing on other photographs. The words “la porte ferme” become la porte fume. The narrator is then plunged back into the memory of which there were previously only glimmers. Groom brilliantly suggests what happened through metonymies: the “cement to my thigh”; a door that is closed; a door that is smoke; breaths while climbing the stairs that take in the burning. One realizes the lover died in a fire while the narrator was trapped on the stairwell outside. The reader is left contemplating how the pain of loss can sneak up and overcome one. Even more disturbingly, one is left with the knowledge that pain can manifest itself through guilt: the poem ends with the narrator admonishing herself for not doing more, “…even/a blind girl can see that’s smoke.”

The poem makes a startling progression. It begins with musings on the nature of a piece handwriting, and builds through associations to the pain and guilt from helplessness. Groom dramatizes the power of metonymy: associations invariably bring one face to face with oneself and one’s experiences, and one may not always like what one sees. What’s even more poignant is that those associations can make one feel the pain of responsibility even when it’s misplaced. Memories carry both joy and sorrow, and even the most random and irrelevant sight can make those feelings come rushing back. One can’t run away. When associations start appearing, they often don't end.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Short Take: The Birth of a Nation

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

The Birth of a Nation, D. W. Griffith’s 1915 epic about the Civil War and Reconstruction, is a landmark film. It was the first feature-length picture produced in the United States, and it more or less established an art form. It is also hideously racist. The story is about two friendly white families, one Northern and one Southern, whose bond is challenged by the events of the war and its aftermath. However, the narrative is also a platform for the romanticizing of the Ku Klux Klan. Further, it promotes the repugnant attitudes that blacks are perfectly happy if they accept their subordinate status to whites, and if given license, their overwhelming desire is to ravish white women. (The story’s martyr is a white girl who kills herself rather than accede to a black man’s advances. A title describes her death as “a priceless sacrifice on the altar of an outraged civilization.”) The racism is made all the more appalling by one’s awareness of Griffith’s artistry: the film is undeniably the work of a master cinematic storyteller. Griffith combines an epic sweep with a documentary immediacy in the film’s historical set pieces. His dramatization of the more quotidian scenes is also remarkable: the staging and the carefully worked-out pantomime of the acting is wonderfully lucid. And the film has moments of extraordinary emotional eloquence, such as when the film’s hero returns from the war and sees the devastation outside his family’s home. The film is so accomplished that one is tempted to make excuses for Griffith. One may want to claim the film’s point is that the failure to follow the path of forgiveness and reconciliation after the war led to a violent moral disaster that kept compounding itself. There’s a good deal of justification for that view, but it’s ultimately a superficial one. At heart, the film’s odious moral is that Northern and Southern whites can get along in perfect harmony as long as blacks know and respect their place. That’s outrageous, and one notes the film was met with protests even at the time of its release. It’s a shame that such a historically important work--and one of genius in many respects--is so marred by foulness.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Short Take: Seconds

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

Seconds (1966) is often considered the third film in director John Frankenheimer’s so-called “paranoia” trilogy, after The Manchurian Candidate (1962) and Seven Days in May (1964). It tells of a New York banker (John Randolph) who, dissatisfied with his life, falls into the clutches of an underground business that offers him the opportunity to start again in a new identity. Coerced into accepting, he is subjected to radical plastic surgery and, played from that point on by Rock Hudson, takes over the life of a California-based painter. But he has trouble adjusting, and he ultimately runs afoul of the company that gave him his new life. The script by Lewis John Carlino, based on the novel by David Ely, is a macabre suspenser that satirizes the unfulfilling conformity of America’s success-driven culture. Frankenheimer, working with the superb cinematographer James Wong Howe, comes up with a visual style that serves it brilliantly. The Hudson character is told at one point, “You are in your own dimension.” Frankenheimer and Howe seem to apply that idea to every visual element: everyone and everything seems to exist on its own plane of reality. Everybody seems isolated from everyone else, and interaction invariably feels as if the participants’ space is being invaded. It’s a superb visual analogue for anxiety and alienation. These effects are most dazzling in the non-studio location shooting; the characters often seem imposed onto the footage of the activity around them. The technique reaches its crescendo in a bacchanal sequence where Frankenheimer turns the meaning in on itself; the usual tack is followed of emphasizing the Hudson character’s discomfort at what’s going on, but the character is then elegantly integrated into the action when he gives over to the celebration. The camera angles occasionally get needlessly hyperbolic, but those are hiccups. The story could use some more snap, and Hudson's performance is flatter than stale soda, but this is still one of most impressive Hollywood films of the 1960s.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Short Take: Green Lantern

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

Director Martin Campbell did a bang-up job relaunching the James Bond series with Casino Royale. But he lays an egg with the prospective Green Lantern franchise. His big-screen treatment of the DC Comics character just goes to show that movies may have effectively exhausted the costumed-superhero genre. Created in 1959 by editor Julius Schwartz, scriptwriter John Broome, and cartoonist Gil Kane (and derived from Martin Nodell's earlier character of the same name), Green Lantern isn't a pop-culture archetype like Superman or Batman. He doesn't have the underdog appeal of Spider-Man, nor does he have the allegorical resonance of the X-Men. He's just a spacefaring cop with a magic ring and a costume that emphasizes the finer details of his musculature. Almost every element of the film can be described with one word: bland. Ryan Reynolds, who plays the title character, is a handsome, slightly goofy piece of beefcake. The hero's love interest (Blake Lively) is beautiful, intelligent, pragmatic, confident, successful, etc., etc., and of course more sensible than he is. (It goes without saying that she gets to patronize him for being irresponsible, and those scenes lay there, too.) The mission is the usual--saving the world--and the hero's personal conflict is the usual as well: he must conquer his fear in order to effectively use his power. The character is a member of an intergalactic police force made up of aliens of all shapes, colors, and sizes, but the film doesn't even have much fun with that. The CGI alien landscapes and character designs all seem to blur into one another. Michael Clarke Duncan is enjoyable as the voice of the alien who trains the hero, but he's around for less of one scene. Peter Sarsgaard, who plays the earthside villain, reminds one of his talent, but one still can't help thinking he sacrificed his dignity in accepting the check for this role, particularly after one sees his make-up job in the film's second half. Prepubescent boys--the audience for the original comics--might find the film entertaining, but it's hard to imagine much of anyone else will.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Poetry Review: "Lime Light Blues," Kevin Young

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

“Lime Light Blues,” by Kevin Young, was originally published in Tin House 37 (Fall 2008). It was reprinted in Young’s collection Dear Darkness, and is featured in The Best American Poetry 2010, edited by Amy Gerstler and David Lehman.

Kevin Young’s short poem “Lime Light Blues” evokes feelings of extreme self-consciousness, specifically the African-American narrator's awareness of others' prejudice against him. Drivers in parked cars treat him as a potential carjacker, women in elevators see him as a possible mugger, and police and teenagers assume he is a drug dealer. (The police consider him a potential shoplifter as well.) Nothing is actually done to him, so there is no way to respond. But the poem isn’t really about the prejudices so much as the narrator’s private anger, and Young's artfulness comes from the tropes he uses to illustrate it.

Young’s most effective figurations are ironies. One laughs at lines like “I’m in an anger/encouragement class,” or “I know all/a movie needs/is me/shouting at the screen/from the balcony.” They have a subtle absurdity. Others cut deeper. There’s a poignance to a passage like “Crowds gather/& wonder how/the spotlight sounds.” One knows those in the crowds couldn’t care less about the impact of their prejudices on the people the prejudices are projected onto. If they cared, they would disabuse themselves of the prejudices. An earlier set of lines is even more disturbing. Young writes, “When I dance,/which is often,/the moon above me/wheels its disco lights--/until there’s a fight.” The point is that there never is a fight; giving into one’s enjoyment--the “dance”--is undermined by the awareness that others’ prejudices lead them to consider violence a constant possibility. Knowledge of outside bigotry creates a hothouse of resentment that undermines life's enjoyments.

The poem’s use of metaphor isn’t as accomplished. A figuration such as “What pressure/my blood is under” is a pretty hackneyed trope for anger, and the title “Lime Light Blues” is at least as obvious when it comes to evoking the anxiety one feels in response to outside attention. The poem’s opening sentence, “I have been known/to wear white shoes/beyond Labor Day,” is better. It conveys, in the context of the entire poem, the tension between awareness of idiosyncrasy and knowledge that the idiosyncrasy is too slight to warrant the attention one feels from others. However, one wonders if the idiosyncrasy is too slight to express that tension. It doesn’t make the reader respond on an emotional level; one is left to figure out Young’s intention.

However, my reservations about some of the tropes aside, Young does a fine job of portraying the state of mind that accompanies consciousness of others’ bigotry. The examples he gives of everyday prejudicial assumptions strike immediate chords, and the ironies that render the narrator’s aggravation and unease are quite effective. “Lime Light Blues” is a solid poem.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Comics Review: Hark! A Vagrant, Kate Beaton

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

Kate Beaton's Hark! A Vagrant, a wryly witty take on literature, history, and whatever else interests the cartoonist, has now been gathered in a welcome first book collection.

Webcomics, for the most part, are just the latest iteration of newspaper strips: short-form comics that present a scenario or gag in a handful of panels. Indeed, many current newspaper strips have, in practice, become webcomics. I wouldn’t be surprised if Doonesbury, to pick one example, enjoys more readers from its perch on slate.com than it does in the daily papers. Additionally, people I know are far more inclined to follow the current newspaper strips on the syndicate websites. But that said, the rise of Internet publication has opened the door to a new breed of strips. Just as the alternative-weekly comics of the 1980s marked a shift in the form--the better-educated readerships of those publications allowed for edgier and more literate content--the Web has given a platform to work that wouldn’t have been seen otherwise. There’s now a place for strips that editors would have judged too esoteric for their papers’ readerships. And it was only a matter of time before some of those strips enjoyed breakout success. One is Kate Beaton’s Hark! A Vagrant, which has parlayed its online popularity into a commercially and critically successful book collection. (For Beaton's latest strips, click here.)

Hark! A Vagrant doesn’t feature continuing characters or storylines. It’s a showcase for absurdist and satirical jokes that take off from literature, history, and other sources. Beaton's favorite approach is to reimagine this material in terms of contemporary attitudes and behavior. In the collection’s opening strip, the Brontë sisters are shown scoping out men. Charlotte and Emily ooh and aah over the sort of creepy brooding-intensity types they feature in their novels. But Anne, whose work treated such men far more harshly, is shown reacting in disgust. Her sisters respond, “No wonder nobody buys your books.” In another, John Adams bids goodbye to his cantankerous ways and decides to kick back and hang loose. The other Founders realize how much they miss the old Adams, who they used to mock behind his back. The tables are turned. Now they’re the tight-assed ones, with Benjamin Franklin ruefully telling Adams, “I was cool until you started scoring more chicks than me.” There are a number of strips that get laughs at the inherent narcissism of medieval courtly love, and Robinson Crusoe through the eyes of Friday, and many other things. My favorites are those in which Beaton uses the covers of Nancy Drew novels and other books as a starting point for reimagining the stories’ content. She has a sharp, distinctive sense of humor. The collection is a breezy, enjoyable read.

My one caveat about Hark! A Vagrant is that it’s in danger of being overpraised. A reviewer like Time’s Lev Grossman is setting readers up for disappointment when he describes the collection with superlatives like “the wittiest book of the year.” (Click here.) The strip is a modest, fun diversion, and that’s what it should be approached as. It doesn’t have the wit, imagination, or depth of the greatest newspaper strips; people shouldn’t be led to expect that. What it does give us is clever and occasionally incisive jokes about things like King Lear, Lewis and Clark, and hipsters throughout history. I say it’s about time. Newspaper and syndicate editors have stood in the way of this sort of material for too long.