Will Eisner’s New York the Big City

By Will Eisner (Kitchen Sink Press)
ISBN: 0-87816-020-5  Hardcover: 0-87616-019-1

William Erwin Eisner was born in 1906, on March 6th in Brooklyn, and grew up in the ghettos of the city. They never left him. After time served inventing much of the visual semantics, semiotics and syllabary of the medium he dubbed “Sequential Art” in strips, comicbooks, newspaper premiums and instructional comics he then invented the mainstream graphic novel, bringing maturity, acceptability and public recognition to English language comics.

In 1978 a collection of four original short stories in comics form released in a single book, A Contract With God and Other Tenement Stories. All the tales centred around 55 Dropsie Avenue, a 1930’s Bronx tenement, housing poor Jewish and immigrant families. It changed the American perception of cartoon strips forever. Eisner wrote and drew a further 20 further masterpieces opening the door for all other comics creators to escape the funnybook and anodyne strip ghettos of superheroes, funny animals, juvenilia and “family-friendly” entertainment. At one stroke comics grew up.

Eisner was constantly pushing the boundaries of his craft, honing his skills not just on the legendary Spirit but with years of educational and promotional material. In A Contract With God he moved into unexplored territory with truly sophisticated, mature themes worthy of Steinbeck and F. Scott Fitzgerald, using pictorial fiction as documentary exploration of social experience.

Restlessly plundering his own childhood and love of human nature as well as his belief that environment was a major and active character in fiction, in the 1980s Eisner began redefining the building blocks unique to sequential narrative with a portmanteau series of brief vignettes that told stories and tested the expressive and informational limits of representational drawings on paper.

In New York the Big City he took nine themes pertaining to life in the Big Apple and pictorially extemporised combining drama, comedy, politics, adventure and fantasy: producing urban art-music from Blues to Punk, Soul to Ragtime and Gospel to sweet, hot Jazz – all with a pencil and brushes.

Many of these enticing, entrancing micro-plays are silent; but whenever necessary and apropos Eisner’s ear for idiom and inflection made miracles and his affection for the ambient sounds of the streets always underscores the harsh, happy and wholly immersive experience of living for The City.

Delivered in monochrome line and seductive grey wash tones the impressionistic voyage begins with The Treasure of Avenue ‘C’ which explores the all-encompassing maw that is a street grating with ‘The Ring’, ‘The Money’, ‘The Weapon’, ‘The Key’ and the connective punch-line ‘The Treasure’. ‘Stoops’ similarly examines the lives that pass before the ubiquitous front steps of tenements, beginning with ‘Witnesses’, ‘Supper Time’ and ‘Home’ before concluding with a description of ‘Stoopball’.

Each individual section is preceded by a moving and expressive tone-painting of the unmistakable cityscapes, and none more powerful than the view from an “El” train that introduces ‘Subways’. Included are ‘An Affair on the BMT Local’, ‘Theater’, ‘Art’, ‘Night Rider’, ‘Blackout’ and ‘The Last Man’. Wherever people congregate there is ‘Garbage’ and Eisner’s sly, witty but compulsively human commentary comprises a look at ‘Cans’, ‘Trash’, ‘The Source’ and ‘Waste’ whilst ‘Street Music’ more closely scrutinises the makers of the messes in ‘Love Song Fortissimo’, ‘Pianissimo’, ‘In Concert’, ‘Opera’, ‘Aria’, ‘Decibel’ and the hilarious ‘Rhythm’.

‘Sentinels’ tackles the monuments of street furniture with ‘Hydrant’, ‘Wayside’, ‘Fountainhead’, ‘Fire Alarm’, ‘Mailbox’, ‘Dead Letter’, ‘Last Minute Mail’, ‘Signal’, ‘Lamppost’, ‘Ringeleivio’, ‘Sewers’ and ‘The River’ whilst ‘Windows’ uncovers all the world’s secrets with ‘A View of Life’, ‘Crows Nest’, ‘Observer’, ‘Fire Exit’, ‘Privacy’, ‘Disposal’, ‘Peeper’, ‘Prisons’, ‘Worm’s Eye View’ and the powerfully evocative ‘Sermonette’.

‘Walls’ are everywhere and here they describe ‘Space’, define ‘Freedom’, delineate a ‘Maze’ and ‘Man’s Castle’, act as a ‘Bulletin Board’ and offer ‘Enclosure’ and ‘Escape’. Moreover ‘Walls Have Ears’, promote another kind of ‘Privacy’ and provide a unique ‘Backdrop’, before re-enacting ‘Jericho’ and becoming ultimately the ‘Last Frontier’.

In NYC everything revolves around ‘The Block’; it is ‘The Old Neighborhood’, home of the ‘Neighborhood Girl’ from ‘Our Block’ on ‘The Good Street’ where ‘Aliens’ get a particular welcome. Eventually though, the homeliest slum inevitably becomes a ‘High Rent District’ and even ‘The Belmont Avenue Gang’ has to yield to the inexorable force of ‘Gentrification’

Eisner’s elegiac fascination with city life, deep empathy with all aspects of the human condition and instinctive grasp of storytelling produced here another magnificently mortal and compellingly mundane melodrama, moving and uplifting and funny and deeply, wistfully true.

You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll be amazed…

As ever the Medium is the Message, especially when the artefact is such a substantially solid tome delivering comics gold in beguiling, incisive black and white – and once again I’m smugging it up because my hardcover with tipped in illustrative plate has proved to have been well worth the initial investment as Will Eisner’s New York the Big City is a veritable cartoon touchstone of all that’s best about the art of cartooning.

Whether it’s your first or ten thousand and first time of reading, this is a tome every comics aficionado will treasure forever, so any edition you can get, you really, really must…

Art and story © 1981, 1982, 1983, 1986 Will Eisner. © 1986 Kitchen Sink Press. All Rights Reserved.

You’ll Never Know Book 2: Collateral Damage

By C. Tyler (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-418-4

In 2009 cartoonist Carol Tyler published the first of a proposed trilogy of graphic memoirs that examined the difficult relationship with her father Chuck, a veteran of World War II. ‘A Good and Decent Man’ explored three generations of the family dominated by a capable mother and a hard working, oddly cold yet volatile, taciturn patriarch. Events kicked off when after six decades of silence incipient frailty suddenly produced in her once-distant father a terrifying openness and desire to share war experiences and history long suppressed.

As if suddenly speaking for an entire generation who fought and died or survived and soldiered on as civilians in a society with no conception of Post Traumatic Stress Disorders, Chuck Tyler began to unburden his soul…

This second volume takes up the acclaimed and award-winning generational saga with Carol coping with her own husband’s desertion, leading to her resuming recording her dad’s recollections of Italy and France (including the infamous Battle of the Bulge) whilst re-examining the painful, chaotic and self-destructive existence she made for herself due to his hidden demons.

Now a single mother, Carol ponders her tempestuous past through a new lens. How much did her cold and terrifying father who was nevertheless a devoted, loving husband shape her mistakes? How can she prevent her increasingly wild daughter making the same mistakes and bad choices? Moreover, as her parents’ physical and mental states deteriorate, Chuck has become obsessed by a mystery that been forgotten since he came back from the conflict and needs Carol to solve it at all costs…

With an increasingly critical reappraisal of the family’s shared experiences, Carol discovers how her own mother coped with dark tragedies and suppressed secrets (revealed in ‘The Hannah Story’ – an updated sidebar first published in 1994), gaining an enhanced perspective but still no satisfactory answers to the conundrum of her father.

As she races to complete the self-appointed task of turning her father’s life into a comprehensible chronicle her parents are both declining visibly and her own life is becoming far too complex to ignore or withstand…

Delivered in monochrome and a selection of muted paint wash and crayon effects, the compellingly inviting blend of cartoon styles (reminiscent of our own Posy Simmonds but with a gleeful openness all her own) captures heartbreak, horror, humour, angst and tragedy in a beguiling, seductive manner which is simultaneously charming and devastatingly effective, whilst the book and narrative itself is constructed like a photo album depicting the eternal question “How and Why Do Families Work?”

Enticing, disturbing and genuinely moving, ‘Collateral Damage’ is a powerful and affecting second stage in Tyler’s triptych of discovery and one no student of the human condition will care to miss.

© 1994, 2010 C. Tyler. All rights reserved.

White Rapids

By Pascal Blanchet, translated by Helge Dascher (Drawn & Quarterly)
ISBN: 978-1-897299-24-1

A fascinating moment in recent social history is brought magically to life in this captivating and innovative graphic novel which eschews the traditional iconography and lexicography of sequential narrative, utilising the bold stylisations of art deco design and the gloriously folksy imagery of 1950s Modernism (think the architecture and landscape of the television Poirot and the movie “Metropolis” wedded to the crinkly curlicue characters populating the titles sequences of Bewitched or “Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines”).

The effect is like looking at a period brochure, which tragically underscores the bold and far too typical story of a town which lived and died at the behest of forces beyond the control of the everyday working stiffs who lived there. The design tour de force is the first translated work of Québécoise creator Pascal Blanchet who transformed the history from dry fact into a magnificent torrent of visual music.

In the 1920s Canada’s growing power demands were supplied by private companies and the most efficient generation method was hydroelectric, created by damming the mighty rivers of the country. In 1928 the Shawinigan Water & Power Company decided to build a new dam in a remote northern region of the St. Maurice River at Rapide Blanc, a section where the waters narrowed into the eponymous fast-running white waters of the title.

To operate a power-plant in such an inaccessible – and for nearly half of each year actively hostile – region, a company town would need to be built for workers and their families. For any man to bring his family into such a wilderness it would have to be an impressive and wonderful town indeed…

Blanchet avoids the tempting option of personalising or dramatising the tale, preferring to let mood, impression, atmosphere and style describe the birth, brief life and sad, sudden death of White Rapids (no clues or answers from me – buy the book): a gleaming moment of Enlightened Capitalism actually doing the right and decent thing for the Proletarian Worker.

This is like no other Graphic Novel you’ve ever seen and is stunningly effective for that, rendered in reduced hues of orange, brown and grey, marvellously devoid of the heretofore presumed necessary clichés of narrative convention, avoiding the dynamic seductions of Protagonist/Antagonist and the avid fetishism of Vitruvian representational faces and forms that underpin all comics art no mater how avant-garde.

This is a beautiful work and deserves every award it’s ever won as well as your rapt attention.

© 2006, 2007 Pascal Blanchet. All Rights Reserved.

How to Commit Suicide in South Africa

By Sue Coe & Holly Metz (Knockabout/A Raw one-shot)
ISBN: 0-86166-0137

When the creative passions are aroused there is no more powerful medium of expression or tool of social change than graphic narrative. Whether it’s the swingeing pictorial satire of reformers such as Hogarth, the prose of Dickens, the publications of Mark Lemon and Henry Mayhew (founders of Punch) or the questing explorations of Will Eisner or Art Spiegelman the trenchant illustration wedded to the loaded word is an overwhelming Weapon of Mass Communication: cheap, universally accessible and capable of extrapolating terrifying conclusions from the scarcest of supplied data.

This perfect example comes from that period of rare world unanimity and applied social pressure which led to the fall of the vile Apartheid regime of South Africa and the literal liberation of millions of disenfranchised and terrorised citizens from their own government.

As part of a broad sweep of disgust and enraged global sensibilities ranging from stunning ridicule (such as e Tom Sharpe’s novels “Indecent Exposure” and “Riotous Assembly”) to such deeply moving audible cries of rage as Peter Gabriel’s “Biko” or Jerry Dammers/The Special A.K.A’s  “Free Nelson Mandela” and even Richard Attenborough’s momentous filmic exposé “Cry Freedom” the planet’s creative community lead a sustained assault on the monsters of Pretoria which eventually forced Western national governments to sever their commercial (and political, anti-Communist) ties to South Africa’s government.

Comic-books got into the act early and often, hopefully opening many young complacent eyes…

While I’m unsure of the exact and total effect of comic condemnation as opposed to legal sanctions and official reprimands, I am utterly certain that politicians listen to the people who vote them in and out, so the power to arouse Joe Public is one I completely appreciate and respect.

From that contentious time comes this stunningly savage graphic account of the day-to-day atrocities of the regime originally compiled and concocted for Art Spiegelman’s groundbreaking magazine Raw. Journalist Holly Metz produces chilling, dryly factual accounts of the history in ‘Background’ subdivided into ‘Chronology’ and ‘Homelands’, moves on to recount the social situation of the oppressed majority in ‘84% of The Population’ examined as ‘Miners’, ‘Urban Workers and Unions’, ‘Rural Laborers and Domestics’, ‘Education Under Apartheid’, ‘Rape in Namibia’ and ‘Tsotsis’ (slang for “Criminals”), before moving on to recount with horrifying matter-of-factness the everyday working of ‘Detention and Repression’.

Divided into fully annotated and corroborated accounts of ‘Steve Biko’s Death’, ‘The Torture of Neil Aggett’ (the first white person to die in detention – officially at least), ‘Women Beaten, Tried and Tortured’, ‘Inside BOSS’ (Bureau of State Security) and ‘Deaths in Detention Since 1963’ the catalogue of iniquity concludes with ‘Free World’ a mortifying trawl through ‘The U.S. Connection’ and ‘Blue Chip Deals’ calling to account those governments and companies that upheld the regime and colluded in the suppression of Democracy in South Africa tacitly, overtly and covertly, often while officially decrying the actions of the white minority government. All the material throughout is fully accredited, annotated and supported by copious footnotes and bibliography.

Sue Coe steals the show and provides the emotional and pictorial stimulus with collages formed from found newspaper headlines, advertising material and photos, as well as her simply brutal assemblage of large cartoons and monochrome paintings: dark, moody and breathtakingly evocative. A tip of the hat should also go to the superlative design contributions of Francoise Mouly and Spiegelman himself.

The regime fell in 1994, when after years of gradual erosion and capitulation, the last white President Frederik Willem de Klerk called for the country’s first fully multi-national elections, before retiring to the sin-bin of history.

Even three decades later, re-reviewing this slim (44 card pages), huge (422x265mm) tome still evokes the white hot outrage and sense of injustice it was supposed to, and I sleep a little easier knowing that when the next moral atrocity occurs, somewhere, cartoonists and creators will be ready to employ the same weapons with hopefully as telling a result…
© 1983 Sue Coe and Holly Metz. All rights reserved.

The Artist Himself: A Rand Holmes Retrospective

Written and compiled by Patrick Rosenkranz (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-170-1

Randolph Holton Holmes was a unique individual: a self-taught artist who grew up troubled, found peace and sufficiency if not fame and fortune and died far too young (March 15th 2002). Now this superb retrospective compilation and biography, featuring scads of sketches, reproductions of drawings, cartoons and the paintings he created in his later life are preserved with a copious collection of his wickedly wonderful underground and alternative comic strips for fans and soon to be devotees.

As usual I’ll deliver here my warning for the easily offended: this book contains comic strips never intended for children. If you are liable to be offended by raucous adult, political and drug humour, or beautifully illustrated scenes of explicit sex and unbelievable comedy violence, don’t buy this book and stop reading this graphic novel review. You won’t enjoy any of it and might be compelled to cause a fuss.

I’ll cover something far more wholesome tomorrow so please come back then.

Rand Holmes was born in Nova Scotia on February 22nd 1942 and raised in Edmonton, Alberta (yes, in Canada). After a rather remarkable early life (no clues from me – the whole point is to get you to buy this book) which included honing his prodigious artistic talent by absorbing the work and drawing styles of Jack Davis, Will Eisner, Harvey Kurtzman (who bought Rand’s first profession sales for Help! magazine) and most especially Wally Wood, he became a jobbing cartoonist and illustrator at The Georgia Straight in 1969, one of the many youth-oriented counter-culture or “underground” newspapers that blossomed during the period.

Whilst there he created his signature character Harold Hedd which ran as a regular strip, and was assembled in 1972 into a hilarious adults-only comic-book The Collected Adventures of Harold Hedd. A second volume followed a year later. Married young and always restless, Holmes generated an astounding amount of cartoon and comic work, appearing in White Lunch Comix, All Canadian Beaver Comics, Slow Death, Fog City Comics, Gay Comics, Dope Comics and Snarf among many others.

He was by inclination a totally liberated sexual and political satirist, and his meticulously lush and shockingly explicit strips often obscured or masked powerful social commentaries by being just too damn well-drawn. He produced strips for Rolling Stone and Cheri magazine. In the 1980s he worked briefly in the mainstream comics market when the Direct Sales revolution first flourished, producing EC flavoured yarns for Twisted Tales and Alien Worlds and reuniting with long-time publishing collaborator Denis Kitchen for horror anthology Death Rattle and the fabulous mini-series Hitler’s Cocaine: the hip, trippy, spectacular return of Harold Hedd (included in its entirety in this volume).

He had married a second time in 1982 and moved his family to the idyllic, isolated artistic community of Lasqueti Island and increasing concentrated on a self-sufficient life-style, with oil-painting replacing cartooning as an outlet for his relentless artistic drives. He built, with other creative hermits, an art centre that has become his monument.

He passed away from Hodgkin’s Lymphoma in 2002 and this book is the result of the first retrospective show compiled by his family from the treasury of superb material he left behind.

As well as a photo-stuffed and highly engaging history this volume contains all manner of artworks from early doodles to teen cartoons, illustrations and covers from his commercial art days, sketches, paintings, fascinating excerpts from the journals he kept for most of his life and a wonderful selection of his comics work.

Those last include many ‘Out to Lunch’ hotrod strips, early Harold Hedd pages from the Georgia Straight, sexy horror yarn ‘Raw Meat’, assorted ultra-nasty Basement Man tales, ‘Nip an’ Tuk Those Cute Little Fuzzy Mices’, Harold Hedd in ‘Wings Over Tijuana’ and an unfinished story, as well as the aforementioned ‘Hitler’s Cocaine’ saga, ‘And Here He Is… the Artist Himself’, ‘Killer Planet’, ‘Junkyard Dog’ (written by Mike Baron), ‘Mean Old Man’ (written by Rob Maisch) – a powerful yarn that smacks of autobiography and the artist portion concludes with a gallery of the stunning paintings that filled his later days.

Rand Holmes was a true artist in every sense of the world and mostly produced work intended to change society, not fill his pockets. This book is a wonderful tribute and one any grown-up art lover will marvel at and cherish.

© 2010 Patrick Rosenkranz, with the exception of the Rand Holmes diary entries which are © 2010 Martha Holmes. All artwork © 2010 Martha Holmes. Individual comic stories © their respective writers. All rights reserved.


By Claude Jean-Philippe & Patrick Lesueur, translated by Wendy Payton (Eclipse Books)
ISBN: 978-0-913035-78-8

As well as a far greater appreciation of, and looser, more accommodating definitions for performing and popular arts, the French just seem to cherish the magnificent ephemera of entertainment; examining and revisiting the icons and landmarks of TV, film, modern music and comics in ways that English-speakers just don’t seem capable of.

At the beginning of the 1980s artist Patrick Lesueur collaborated with author Claude Jean Philippe on a graphic series of biographies featuring Movie Stars who changed the world: Charlie Chaplin, the Marx Brothers, Errol Flynn and the subject of this slim and beautiful chronicle translated for America by West Coast independent publisher Eclipse.

Even Wikipedia doesn’t throw up much about the writer but Lesueur began life as a window dresser before moving into bande dessinée in 1972 by joining the creative staff of Pilote, illustrating current affairs pages before moving into fiction with short eco-fables compiled as the album ‘En Attendant le Printemps’ and cop thriller ‘Reste-t-il du Miel pour le Thé’. Latterly he produced ‘Detroit’, ‘Douglas Dunkerk’, and classic car feature ‘Enzo Ferrari, l’Homme aux Voitures Rouges’.

Bogie is told in a haunting, conversationally first-person narrative: the moodily realistic yet whimsically refined life of one of the greatest screen gods of all time comes to elegiac life in this peculiarly down-beat and low-key piece, all the more fascinating because the tale unfolds in an engagingly static manner but actually sounds just like you’d want and expect Humphrey Bogart to talk to you if you met him in a bar, whilst the restrained yet powerfully effective images shout “private photograph album” in a candid, winningly intimate way.

Bogart apparently led an unremarkable life off-screen, or perhaps the creators just didn’t want this hard-drinking, much-married legend to outshine his own celluloid legacy, but in terms of graphic novel entertainment this poetic picture-story in a stunning achievement and worthy of your attention. Perhaps someday soon another publisher will re-release it and even translate those other silver screen sagas too…
Contents © 1984 Dargaud Editeur Paris by Claude Jean Philippe and Patrick Lesueur. 1989 This edition © 1989 Eclipse Books.

Recipe For Disaster and other Stories

By Penny Van Horn (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 0-56097-330-7

Raised in Rye, New York, Penny (Moran) Van Horn worked in publishing before moving to Austin, Texas to begin her inexplicably low-key career as a cartoonist and storyteller. After years producing some of the most evocative and memorable graphic narratives of the 1990’s independent comics scene for magazines such as Weirdo, Wimmen’s Commix, Snake Eyes, Twisted Sisters and Zero Zero she now primarily works in newspaper illustration and produces a weekly strip for the Austin American-Statesman. She is also adept at painting, lettering and design and recently began experimenting with animation.

Recipe For Destruction is a collection of her early strips: deep, intense concoctions, more black than white, many crafted in her immensely labour-intensive scraperboard illustration style (see also the wonderfully mordant supernatural dark romance The Librarian), and all dwelling in the hazardous borderland between autobiography and bleakly comedic self-exploratory fantasy.

Latterly citing inspiration from such varied sources as Lucille Ball, Dick Van Dyke and Carol Burnett, Van Horn’s introspective retrospective begins with the eponymous ‘Recipe for Disaster’, which describes with harrowing aloofness her brief period of mental instability – her original title for the tale was “Mystical Experience or Nervous Breakdown” – before the book moves on to shorter but no less challenging fare.

‘Ten Dollars for Two Minutes’ details an unpleasant experience with her landlord, ‘Molested’ takes a slightly different glance at modern drama’s favourite plot device and ‘Catholic School’ is for anybody educated by nuns (Big ‘Hi’ to anybody else who survived Sacred Heart Convent Primary School without paying for therapy…) an utterly understandable slice of pictorial vitriol…

‘There’s No Such Thing as a Pregnant Silence’ outlines with frank and memorable humour some clear downsides to the Happy Event, ‘Binge and Purge’ reveals a different manner of addiction, ‘Domestic Bliss’ is a gloriously excessive examination of wedded bliss and ‘A Revealing Dream’ confirms that men’s suspicions of “what women want” has never been more wrong…

‘The Psycho Drifter’ is a remarkably unsettling account of modern dating, whilst ‘Texas Characters’ is plain laugh-out-loud whacky and ‘A Bird in the Beard’ returns to the subject of looking for love with more salutary comic reminiscences. The volume ends with a deeply moving cautionary tale about the heart ruling the head in ‘Mid-Life Crisis’, as well as the inclusion of some entrancingly unlovely pin-ups.

Van Horn’s work is astonishing in its captivating power and subtle influence. Her stories aren’t pretty but they are beautiful, and this collection, still in print and readily available, is one of the best grown-up comics collection around. If you believe that there’s more to strips than fights, tights and honking big guns, this book is all the proof you need.

© 1998 Penny Van Horn. All rights reserved.

Unlovable volume 2

By Esther Pearl Watson (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-314-9

This arrived cold: I had never heard of the strip nor the magazine Bust where it has run for years, but as I’m always up for something new I sat down and lost myself in the world of Tammy Pierce, Texas Teen…

Ostensibly based on an actual diary the artist found in a gas-station restroom in 1995, this concluding volume resumes with the innermost thoughts, dreams and experiences of a dumpy, utterly ordinary girl surgically displayed for our examination in a catchy, breathless, effusive warts ‘n’ all style as she endures her Sophomore year of High School, from Christmas Eve 1988 to the Summer of 1989.

When you’re a teenager some things are truly timeless and universal: parents are unreasonable and embarrassing, siblings are scum and embarrassing and your body is embarrassingly finding new and horrifying ways to betray you almost daily… Your friends can’t be trusted, you’re attracted to all the wrong people and sometimes you just know that no one will ever love you…

Drawn in a two colour, faux-grotesque manner (you can call it intentionally primitive and ugly if you want) the page by page snapshots of a social hurricane building to disaster is absolutely captivating. Although this is a retro-comedy experience, behind her fatuous obsession with fashion, boys, music (equal parts Debbie Gibson and The Smiths!), social acceptance and traitorous bodily functions, Tammy is a lonely bewildered child that it’s hard not to feel sorry for. Actually it’s equally hard to like her (hell, its difficult to curb the urge to slap her at times) but that’s the point after all…

If you live long enough you’ll experience the pop culture keystones of every definitive era of your life at least twice more. The base, tasteless and utterly superficial aspects of the 1980s are currently in vogue for the current generation, which is too young to remember them – but you and I can get all nostalgic for the good bits and blithely ignore all the bad stuff: this big little hardback (408 pages, and about 15x15cm) is a delightful and genuinely moving exploration of something eternal given extra punch with the trappings of that era of tasteless self-absorption.

Like those other imaginary diarists Nigel Molesworth, Bridget Jones and Adrian Mole Tammy Pierce’s ruminations and recordings have something concrete to contribute to the Wisdom of the Ages and this book is humorous delight tinged with gentle tragedy – although that’s more in the readers apprehension of how her life eventually turned out…

Modern and Post-Ironic, Unlovable is unmissable.  Now please excuse me, I’ve got to put on my legs warmers and chunky sweater and hunt down a copy of volume 1…

© 2010 Esther Pearl Watson. All rights reserved.

Joe and Azat

By Jesse Lonergan (NBM/ComicsLit)
ISBN: 978-1-56163-570-2

Here’s a wonderful little waste of time: cartoonist Jesse Lonergan drew upon his youthful experiences as an American Peace Corps volunteer in the nation of Turkmenistan in the days after the fall of the Berlin Wall when the Soviet collapse released many countries from seventy years of iron repression…

Granted autonomy and self-rule virtually overnight, a lot of Warsaw Pact countries didn’t fare well with instant democracy and Free Market Capitalism. In Turkmenistan, their new leader Turkmenbashy (with 99½ % of the vote because “everybody likes him”) was a real pip, renaming the days of the week after himself and using the nation’s entire budget to send a book of his poetry into space. In a pitifully arid country, he built a river through his capital city – because all great cities have rivers running through them. Images of the ruthless potentate are everywhere: it’s a shame nobody ever found oil in the country…

This is a charmingly subtle tale of culture shock and national misapprehensions as young Joe grapples with the outrageous differences between his liberal and wealthy homeland and the rules, laws and ingrained prejudices of a newly liberated society.

Nervous and alone the Yankee lad slowly finds a friend in the astonishingly upbeat and forward looking Azat: an ambitious convert and zealot for “The American Way”, although most of Joe’s time is spent futilely apologising and explaining that what that actually means is as far removed from the US Movies Azat is addicted to as the decades of Russian propaganda he grew up with.

Becoming almost part of the family (as complex and dysfunctional as any western one) he is caught in the tidal wave of Azat’s enthusiastic aspirations and daily frustrations, but never seems able or willing to staunch or crush them, even though he knows how hopeless they ultimately are…

Poignant, bittersweet, with an end but no conclusion, this is a superbly understated dissertation on the responsibilities and power of friendship, the poison of unattainable dreams and the unthinking cruelty of cultural imperialism, illustrated in a magically simplistic and irresistibly beguiling manner: a delight for any fan searching for more than simple jokes and action. Reading this would actually be time very well spent…

© 2009 Jesse Lonergan. All rights reserved.

The Year of Loving Dangerously

By Ted Rall & Pablo G. Callejo (NBM/ComicsLit)
ISBN: 978-1-56163-565-8

If you live long enough you’ll experience the pop culture keystones of every definitive era of your life at least twice more. The base, tasteless and utterly superficial aspects of the 1980s are currently doing the rounds again as the current generation – which was too young to remember them – get all nostalgic for the good bits and blithely ignore all the bad stuff: same as it ever was…

…Except for Ted Rall. The contemporary essayist and American political cartoonist, like everybody who was actually there, also recalls the decade that most tellingly shaped his life and has now written a largely autobiographical graphic novel memoir for rising comics star Pablo G. Callejo to beautifully illustrate.

For us Brits it was Union-Bashing, loads-a-money, poverty, excess, daft hair and Thatcher, whilst America endured trickle-down Reaganomics, insider dealing, covert warfare and poodle rock – so nobody really got off lightly either side of the pond…

In 1984, through a series of concatenating disasters and no fault of his own (well, not too much) college student Ted Rall was expelled from Columbia University, lost his apartment and was dumped onto the streets of New York with only a couple of dollars in his pocket.

Homeless and desperate in a land with no safety-net (not much different from Britain in the 80’s, in all honesty) he faced a short, bleak future, with very few options, the best of which was jumping off the dormitory building roof…

His happy salvation came as he sat in a diner. Accidentally picking up a young woman he spent a night at her pad and discovered a new career. For nearly a year he bounced from pick-up to assignation to one-night-stand, not for cash but only bed and board.

This book follows his narrowest of escapes from poverty, addiction, sexual infection and extreme loss of self-respect as, with the dubious aid of the luckiest dope-fiend in the city, Ted claws his way back to semi-respectability and security (as a stock market trader!) by means he clearly still doesn’t quite understand decades later.

What ought to be a salutary parable about the wages of sin is actually a sincere, sensitive and immensely humane tale of triumph over adversity, free from bragging, tawdry prurience or sordid machismo and truly funny in a heartwarming manner. Rall the student gigolo is a charming, if hapless, protagonist and the non-judgemental treatment of casual sex is wonderfully refreshing, as is the good hard look at the heart and soul rather than the surface veneer of the decade.

Not a book for everybody, but rational adults with an eye to an endearing human drama will love it.

© 2009 Ted Rall & Pablo G. Callejo. All rights reserved.