Thursday, September 25, 2008

TRAVELS by Michael Crichton, and THE FRANK BOOK by Jim Woodring

There's a funny connection between two of the books I read most recently: THE FRANK BOOK and TRAVELS. On the surface they're quite different, and they're pretty distinct at a deeper level too, but both books share a fascination with perception and with the act of observing, especially with how these things relate to the mind. TRAVELS, which is a collection of writings about events in Michael Crichton's life, starts out focusing on the author's tourist trips to foreign locations, but the latter half of the book becomes increasingly concerned with the author's experiences with psychic phenomena, such as seeing auras and visiting the astral plane. FRANK chronicles the events of an anthropomorphic cartoon who lives in a bizarre, often hallucinogenic world, a world populated by only a few distinct individuals, each of whom possesses a dramatically different vision of the things around them. In TRAVELS Crichton discusses what he learns about himself by visiting exotic places--he has a frightening accident while scuba diving, he comes face to face with an elephant--he sees things and experiences things and they change his perception of himself. In FRANK the same 'change through experience' thing happens, but on a different level. We see the title character go through experiences--falling into a mystic, eye-ringed well; playing with a devil's toy--that physically change the shape and appearance of his head, and his mind within it. In TRAVELS the change is mental, and explicitly described; in FRANK the change is physical, and shown to us rather than told; but in both situations the characters radically change their heads because of defined experiences.

One thing worth noting about this is that TRAVELS, being autobiographic and word-based, is an author talking about himself, describing his experiences; while FRANK, being a fantastical comic, is an author drawing pictures of a fictional character that is 'other' than the author. In one book the author explains and tells, in the other the author shows. In one work the author's presence is blatant, un-ignorable, even to the point of irritation (Crichton often comes across as self-obsessed and neurotic, effete and intellectually-snobbish), in the other the author is rarely considered, but his presence, his preferences and what they reveal about his personality, can still be discerned if carefully watched for (if only in the preference he shows to certain characters, the way he makes the cards come up for them).

It's funny how similar themes can appear in such radically different forms.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Comics Smorgasbord

I've been reading more and more during the last few weeks. It's gotten to the point where I stay up late reading, and the first thing I want to do when I wake up the next morning is grab a book. I've even been late to a few appointments because of this, and I've been putting off writing, and I've been sitting indoors a lot more than normal. I think it springs from boredom and some dissatisfaction with my life, and a desire to escape. Sort of like a substance abuser, with books as the substance.

Yesterday I wanted to get out into the city, to visit some places I used to frequent, and do some people watching. Sort of an attempt to get me outside and away from books. So I jumped on the downtown train right after work, planning on getting off on Powell. Instead I got off at Civic Center, wandered over to the Main Branch of the San Francisco Public Library, and checked out ten graphic novels.

In some ways, graphic novels are like a more potent "escapist" substance. They're easier to engage with than prose form writing, because of the pictures, and they're shorter than novels--jump into a new story a finish it in less than an hour. Instead of taking a day off from the vice, I was going on a bender.

The first comic I read was A MAN CALLED KEV, by Garth Ennis. I read it standing in the aisles, before I even got to the check out desks. Ennis's PREACHER series was one of the best of the VERTIGO line, I think. KEV has a lot of similar aspects to it, including extreme violence and crude humor, but it's missing a lot of what made PREACHER great. First of all, the topic is more mundane. PREACHER had all kinds of religious and metaphysical wierdness going on, with a Texas Tough Guy angle, and an old Western feel. KEV is just a black comedy, with lots of gore, about a retired S.A.S agent with incompetent enemies. PREACHER had its share of crude humor too, but it also had some poignancy to it, especially in its portrayal of the friendship between Custer and Cassidy. KEV is noticeably lacking in anything poignant, its just blood and sex jokes.

After finishing A MAN CALLED KEV, and shoving it back on the shelf, I went to the check out with the other ten books, and then got out on the street. It's kind of ironic that San Francisco's Civic Center, with so many of its grand structures (like the library and City Hall), is surrounded by some of the sleaziest streets in the downtown area. I left the library, with its natural light and clean-lined architecture, and its massive selection of books, and the first thing I saw on the street was a young pimp-wannabe trying to hit on some fat hooker while she threw her trash out into the street.

From there I went on up Market, and then took a right on Powell. Smack in the middle of one of San Francisco's tourist epicenter. While I walked up Powell I crossed in front of Rasputin music, which brought to mind COMETBUS 51, a stellar issue giving a history of some of the local Bay Area businesses, such as Rasputin. Apparently, the guy who started the business is a real wacko.

Up at Union Square I took a seat and cracked open DUNGEON, by Joann Sfar. I'd seen it around in a few places before, but never picked it up. On the back cover there's a blurb saying the series has been a "best seller in several countries." I wonder which countries those are. In any case, it was a pretty good read. The cover art made me think it might be oriented toward a young audience--it even seemed a bit sloppy to me at first, not nearly as sophisticated as the some of the stuff you see other artists produce, but as I worked my way through the comic I came to appreciate the Sfar's whimsical style, and the obvious care she puts into her backgrounds--but the comic had enough substance to keep me interested. Like PREACHER, DUNGEON hits a few poignant notes relating to friendship, and like PREACHER it often uses violence for humorous effect, but in most ways you couldn't find two more different comics. I also give the series credit for embracing so wholeheartedly a setting generally ignored by the market.

Once I'd turned the last page of DUNGEON, I put it back in my pack and started up Stockton, the market street for Chinatown. I stayed on that all the way through to Columbus, in the Little Italy section, and stopped in at Buster's for a cheese-steak sandwich. While I ate my sandwich, I read the first volume of A JEW IN COMMUNIST PRAGUE, by Vittorio Giardino.
The copy I'd picked up from the library was the most battered book on the shelf, and that combined with the look and tone of the comic made me assume it was an older work. Turns out Giardino published it in the 90s, not so old after all. AJICP is pretty classic in its feel. The art is meticulous and the story's delivery makes me think of a few European literary novels, like CRIME AND PUNISHMENT, but not as dark. I also found the story compelling: imagine that the government is set on making things hard for you, that you've been singled out for no real reason, and with no way to control it. One day, out of the blue, there's a knock at your door. Your father opens the door and police rush in, accost him, and ransack your house. All of your mother's attempts to find out what's going on are met with scornful indignance on the part of the authorities. Meanwhile, she's fired from her job and not allowed to pursue work. Two years later you find out that your father has been declared guilty, without trial, of counter-revolutionary activities, and sentenced to a ten years in prison. Meanwhile you're prohibited from continuing your studies, and forced to earn money for your family, at the age of 13. It all might sound like some cold-war propaganda story about communist countries in the 50s, but keep in mind that the exact same things are happening today, and that the American government is doing them. We've got prisoners in Guantanamo who have been detained for more than six years now, and still haven't had charges made against them. It's the same fucking thing.

I finished the first volume of A JEW IN COMMUNIST PRAGUE in Buster's, and then went to Washington Square to read the second. Giardino is masterful in his artistry, especially in his depiction of the protagonist growing older, though I did feel like he overdid it with the protagonist's mother. I also felt like the art might have been a little overdone--we don't need a full background for every shot--and it sort of feels like it outweighs the story in points. The second volume sort of reminded me of the movie Les Quatre Cents Coups.

The North Beach Branch of the SF Public Library system is just a few blocks down from Washington Square. I walked up to it and dropped off the comics I'd already read, and then I found a coffee shop and started reading THE LIVING AND THE DEAD, by Jason.
I've read a few other comics by Jason, like THE LEFT BANK GANG, and I really like his work. He's got a very simple art-style, drastically different from Giardino, but it works well for his subject matter: finding relationships in the city. THE LIVING AND THE DEAD takes that "finding-relationship" theme into the realm of zombie horror, but does it in a pretty light-hearted and humor based way. Jason is clever, but not in an overly showy way. His books are good stories, nice to read. I finished THE LIVING AND THE DEAD, and then read I KILLED ADOLF HITLER while riding public transit home.

When I finally got home, I started reading IT'S A GOOD LIFE, IF YOU DON'T WEAKEN, by Seth. If this was a true memoir, I'd call it one of the best memoirs I've ever read. Instead it's an account of Seth's life, including his quest for meaning and his battles with loneliness, bent around a fictional plot-line of him researching a failed cartoonist from the fifties. A lot of the story is delivered in monologues as Seth walks around his city, or in staged dialogues with his friend Chet. That sort of "neurotic/hyper-aware/depressed artist" stuff can be a pretty tedious, ego-driven form of solipsism, but Seth manages to defray such effects by imbuing his character with genuine appreciation for his friends and the other good things in his life. In the end, he brings the book to a profound and masterfully understated moment of resolution, in which we're given reason for an optimism tempered by our acknowledgment of life's difficulty. The art-style in the book, a distinct nod toward strip-art from the 50s, also works as an interesting second-layer of meaning by paralleling the art the author has found so heartening. Great book.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

NEVERWHERE, by Neil Gaiman

Neil Gaiman made his name with the Vertigo comic series SANDMAN, a dream-centered epic that inflected traditional mythologies with 90s goth culture. In the end SANDMAN ran for 75 issues, later collected into 10 graphic novels, and it was celebrated by everyone from Norman Mailer to Stephen King. I've got friends that are crazy about Sandman, but my own experience with the series has teetered between mildly entertained and just plain bored, and I quit slogging through it after the 8th graphic novel. The fact that I spent so much time with the title character "Dream," and then gave up in the story that concerns his death, shows how tedious the series had become for me--all that time together, and I couldn't even finish for the sake of closure.

Since SANDMAN, Gaiman has gone on to work in novels, and he's had a lot of success in this field as well. I'd been curious to see how the man stood up on his own, in a less collaborative medium than comics (which is often a baby shared by a writer and artist), and I got my chance to read NEVERWHERE, Gaiman's first novel, when a co-worker started reading it in the office, and raving about it daily. Once he'd finished the book, he handed it off to me.

One of the things I found most interesting about NEVERWHERE was how much it reminded me of SANDMAN. I'd assumed there'd be significant differences between Gaiman on his own, working with words alone, and his collaborations with artists in a visual format, but I was wrong. Part of this might arise from the fact that Gaiman rarely worked with one artist for very long; excepting Dave McKean, who did the covers, SANDMAN saw a new artist every few issues. That might mean that the artists had less involvement in the story or the characters--the artists might have dressed SANDMAN up in different clothes, but it remained Gaiman's baby alone. Another thing that might be responsible for the similarity is Gaiman's rudimentary use of words; he's hardly a stylist, more of an idea man who uses words simply, in order to express those ideas. The final thing that really draws the two works together is the fact that so many of the ideas in the novel are the same as those in the comic. Both works, for example, show an adoration of female characters, often presenting them as powerful and mysterious while the male character's are either inept or wily. Both works portray reality as a mere illusion, and those who can't see past that illusion are shown as vulnerable and weak. Both works feature villains that munch on rats. It goes on and on.

Also interesting about the similarities between SANDMAN and NEVERWHERE are what they reveal about Gaiman himself. We get the sense, from reading these stories, that Gaiman likes to play a bit rough--he's not afraid to kill a character, even a central one, with little explanation or compensation. I get the feeling that this is one of the things that his fans like about him--they see this as evidence that Gaiman doesn't pull punches. Gaiman also uses clever humor as a tool, or an easy way out: "Varney connected his crowbar with the dwarf, who instantly stopped bouncing and darting, and instantly began lying insensible."

One notable difference between SANDMAN and NEVERWHERE is that as the novel progressed, it became more interesting, while the comic completely lost me by the end. I think that part of this comes from Gaiman's passage concerning "the ordeal" that Richard (the protagonist) has to go through, which is a passage that carries a lot more power than much of the rest of the book that preceded it. Before this passage Richard comes across as a bit of a lovable buffoon, endearing but not especially interesting. After the passage he becomes more than that--he's faced a truly harrowing experience, an experience the reader can relate to with more emotion than a cleverly described blow with a crowbar. We actually respect him, and feel like he merits our concern.

Maybe this improvement toward the latter half of the book relates to the fact that NEVERWHERE started out as a television program that Gaiman later adapted into the novel. In the start he was mucking about, playing with a new medium, establishing the story and the characters. In the middle it loses its sense of direction. But by the end Gaiman had a stronger idea of where to take the story, and he gave us more meaningful plotting.