Thursday 28 August 2008

audio interview with Cambo, a whole hour of it. By phone from hotel room in Chicago. Robin always asks me to select the music. I was so enjoying Fats Waller's I'm Crazy 'bout my baby that I completely forgot I was on next.

Wednesday 27 August 2008

red Colored Elegy (Hardcover) by Seiichi Hayashi published last month by Drawn and Quarterly.
This Japanese work was originally drawn (and presumably published) in 1970/71 and I find my self more inclined to imagine what I would have thought about it then rather than what I think about it now.

It's 236 pages long, but that is beside the point. More germane, it's a long strip cartoon about the stuff of life; it's about sex and love, the attempt to make a living from art, and your parents dying. In 1971 I would have found this inspirational. There was an idea getting around that comic books could amount to something more than routine bouts of costumed pugnacity. When Will Eisner was asked directly in a 1968 intervew whether he thought the idea of a novel in comics form was viable he said he thought the time wasn't right for it. When asked about Gil Kane's His Name is Savage, just released at that time, he he said that he felt that it was not entirely successful. He doesn't make his point clear, but we feel that he meant that it had not set its goal high enough, that it only sought to raise a comic book to the level of a paricularly violent Lee Marvin movie. When he saw his own A Contract With God published ten years later, it was the ambitiousness of his theme that he was most pleased with, a man and his relationship with his God, as he has said often. When he called that suite of short stories a 'graphic novel' he meant to draw attention to this thematic ambition. Neither the form nor the format was the relevant issue. In the same month that book came out (oct 1978) he started a serial in his regular Spirit magazine (Kitchen Sink Press) titled Life on another Planet. He called that a 'graphic novel' too (as printed on the first page). Its serial nature was beside the point. Back then we lived in a world of ideas and possibilities. Today our pinched and mean world is all taxonomies and guys with measuring tapes. Over on the Comics Journal board somebody posits that a so-called 'graphic novel' must have at least 100 pages; elsewhere this week somebody else states that Watchmen cannot be considered a 'graphic novel' because it was first issued in serial form (and in the stupid nature of his cockeyed classifications it must therefore be 'a trade paperback').

Red Elegy is a good read, though this reviewer at amazon says he had trouble making sense of it. I would guess that's because today's reader has a more linear brain than 1970's reader. It reminds me of 'world cinema' in the '60s and of that noble movement in which cinema viewers were expected to be viewing at a somewhat higher level than tv comsumers in their sitting rooms. There was an idea abroad in the world that cinema was the art of our times, absurd in these times now that the whole medium appears to have descended to the level of comic books.

It would have appealed to me at the time particularly for suggesting new pictorial ideas and sequential schemata, which the Kane book and so many others of the seventies, the reputations of which I will not enrich by mentioning them by name, failed to do. If I could, I would have obtained a copy in Japanese and kept it on my shelf, and would have contented myself to imagine what was being said and done. I like the way it indolently takes its time. There's not a great deal of hard information in here, and when there is some, it is delivered obliquely. Some other reviewers have mentioned that characters are not well enough differentiated. In fact there are only two that matter. He and she. And if occasionally you confuse the two of them, well hey, welcome to 1970.


Sunday 24 August 2008

age 53 and still retrieving books from my parents attic. This is one of the great transformative works in the development of the concept that great books might be written using the simple elements of the strip cartoon (an idea that is not to be confused with the corrupted and now irretrievable idea of 'the graphic novel'.) Walt Kelly's intro is dated Feb 1970, so presumably the material comes from 1969 (Jan -Aug, reading from data in the strips...) But such nitpicking seems to me to belittle Kelly's achievement here; continuity strips wouldn't normally expect readers to keep track of narrative ideas for eight weeks let alone months. Of all the books collecting the Pogo daily strip, this work stands out for being through-composed and cunningly structured. With the chapter titles in place it is difficult to think other than that the author saw the book in his head while he was turning out these dailies, though there are presumably many tangents and stops, restarts and nods to topical occurences that have been pruned out of the 1969 catalogue to boil it down to such essential perfection.
And what chapter titles: Looking ahead behind by a nose; A Head in a hole and vice versa; The drive-in self service mortuary; Justice is blind, deaf and stoned; All's well that ends.(the last has long been my favourite Kelly-ism)

"One of the great stumbling blocks in history is that one day follows another".
It starts with the New Year's Day gathering of the intimate cast of characters who in their inventive and sprightly conversation arrive at a plan to rearrange the calendar.
"I don't want no month with a thirteenth day in it." says Churchy la Femme, the turtle.
"What folks gonna do from the 12th to the 14th, hold their breath?"
"When you suggests people stops breathin' for one day a month you little recks with innocent pleasures."
"But it would help fight pollution."
And by this simple means we arrive at the theme of the book.
If everybody holds their breath we can reduce pollution. The logic proceeds apace as only in Walt Kelly...
"You take a fella what's a fish, he don't breathe."
"But he do... for centuries he's been breathin' water what's contaminated with old ruubber boots, tin cans, old bedsprings, garbage delicacies an' unfrocked umbrellas."

Inevitably the business of non-breathing leads us to the cemetery:
"The way I figger it, if we get all the non-breathers to endorse not breathin' on our seance tv show..."

The look of the thing starts getting elaborate, with the specially lettered typefaces for the dialogue of Deacon Muskrat and Sarcophagus MacAbre. The villainy of this pair starts to look ineffectual after the introduction of Kelly's caricature of Spiro Agnew as a hyena (pictured on the book's cover, above), who finds it easier to try and convict Churchy after putting a long haired wig on his bald pate. Kelly's grasp of the political situation has proven to be spot-on at a time when so many other cartoonists of his generation were embarrassingly out of step, such as Al Capp and Milt Caniff. If memory serves, I had only just read this book when Kelly died in 1973, aged sixty.

The book ends after 128 pages where it started with our beloved cast back around the table, and with Kelly's greatest catchphrase of all:

I feel an enormous warmth in being reunited with this masterpiece after twenty five years of separation. I'm also curious about the atmospherics of my parents' attic, which have preserved this and other artefacts in completely perfect condition.

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