Summer reading: John Reed on 'The Dark Knight Returns'
John Reed has written novels -- "A Still Small Voice" and "Snowball's Chance" -- as well as stranger assemblages. What do you call a play made up entirely of mixed-up lines from six of Shakespeare's best-known plays? Reed called it "All the World's a Grave," and Penguin published it in 2008. This month, Reed returns to shelves with "Tales of Woe," a bleak, black book full of true tales of undeserved suffering, illustrated with grim original art by Kiki Jones and others. "This is not Hollywood catharsis," the book proclaims on its back cover. "This is Greek catharsis: You watch people suffer horribly, then feel better about your own life." John Reed took a sideways response to our questions: This is, sort of, his essay about summer reading, and growing up.
Jacket Copy: Do you remember reading a book or books during a specific summer?
John Reed: A few things, I can tell. I can usually tell a martial arts guy: he'll have a look like "I could move a lot faster, but it hurts too much." And, probably related because a lot of martial arts guys were abused as children -- or are living something down -- I can tell when someone had an alcoholic parent. Sometimes takes a bit, but that will usually reveal itself -- a person too good, too facilitating, probably as he or she had to be through childhood. I didn't learn that at Al-Anon, no doubt the better course, I learned that in the arts. I grew up in the artworld, stayed somewhat, and have added in a writer crowd. Nothing more obvious -- "I was a neglected child" -- than that smiling schmuck author shot. There's one of me on the back flap of my first book.
Which brings me to the two types of schmucks. 1) The kind that cares what other people think. 2) The kind that doesn't.
It was while reading "The Dark Knight Returns," Frank Miller's update of the Batman legacy, that I realized my life, or the quest of my life, would be to transform myself from the first kind of schmuck to the second. I haven't always succeeded, and I still rip my shirt off my back three times a week, but I think my development as an author -- from Civil War love story ("A Still Small Voice") to "Tales of Woe," twenty-five true stories that just get worse -- shows progress.
"The Dark Knight" was a momentous event to the comics community. It was an avalanchian erosion of hard boundaries: between mainstream comics and underground comix, between adult and juvenile comics, between the comic book and the book. The four-part series had better art, better writing, and a more complicated narrative. Batman, the aging hero who was as if the personification of the Comics Code (which legislated that law enforcement be depicted as just and upstanding) is transformed into a decaying 80s hero. A Clint Eastwood cowboy who's lost his sense of right; an investigative detective who's gotten too close to the pathology of the serial killer; a hero struggling, struggling, not to become a villain. That was the best part about it. Not the struggle to stay heroic, but the inevitable fall. "The Dark Knight" didn't rekindle my interest in superheroes, but here was this jag on the timeline: this comic book that was really a book, and art and text and a direction that would dispatch the Comics Code, which was a creative death sentence; and this plausibility of schmuck enlightenment. Batman was an enlightened schmuck. Or, at his best he was.
Not long before, I'd read Machiavelli's The Prince, which is only going to work if you're a prince, and Anton LaVey's The Satanic Bible, which is, fittingly, a largely plagiarized rip-off. The best I had done to satisfy my own sense of theology was The Gospel of Thomas, which iterated the popular notion that God is inside you, or something akin. Not for two years would the villain postulation be succinctly framed and illustrated in the Batman universe -- not until "The Killing Joke," by Allan Moore and Brian Bolland, did a piece of poop like the rest of us come alive with the punchline (becoming the joker) -- but still, in the Dark Knight, I caught an inkling of a popular contemporary treatment. The appeal of the villain, of schmuck type #2. Only the villain seeks freedom.
JC: What year was it, and how old were you?
JR: My second summer in the South of France. The previous year, I'd traveled to the Côte d'Azur because, after what I'd perceived as an injustice, I'd flunked my sophomore year of high school French. At that time my mother's art career was over the moon, and my father's was improving -- and my grandfather, who had a little money and some wisdom, suggested I remediate my difficulties in view of the Mediterranean. The reasoning behind a second summer: ostensibly, my certificate in Intermediate French; really, because the first summer I'd returned to New York with a 24-year-old investment banker.
At 17, I was past my prime. 1986: I'd been wearing high tops and army pants. 1987: I was in shoes. I wouldn't say I had crossed over, but I was standing on the shoreline, and if I wasn't yet a young man, I was no longer a boy. I'd grown, I was taller, and drugs had started to bore me and make me boring. I'd broken my nose several more times, fighting. I'd read too many books. I'd launched my on-again off-again performance "Clarity Corner," in which I would answer any question, any question at all. I was reading philosophy and occult opinings, and not managing to take it seriously. I'd have insights like, "The truth must invalidate itself," meaning to say that the measure of any subjective truth was the balance of its fallibility, and have debates about it with Germans. Perhaps I was still a beautiful youth, but as far as the older women (twenty-four seemed "older"), the stick on the fly paper was gone. I'd become moody and, worse, self-educated.
Having known none of the upper middle class stability that I chose to see everywhere in popular culture, I lavished open-mouthed attention on women who wore co-ordinated beach attire, and issued pat answers for any occasion. (Now, older is, hmm, Sarah Palin age: "Tales of Woe" features two Sarah Palin Pin-Ups.) The previous summer, I'd closed in on the paradigm; my investment banker was a former president of Kappa Kappa Gamma and went to one of those schools. One of those schools that, with my grades, I was unlikely to get into. But she was secretly troubled, Jenny P, and I think more intrigued by my need for physical intimacy than motivated by desire; I wasn't too interested in sex (more like, sexual acts; sex was too intimate), and my big trick through that summer and most of high school was to pass out with a woman in my arms.
JC: Where were you?
JR: I settled into my redux enrollment at the Collège International de Cannes with little expectation of romance, or whatever it is a 17-year old male expects of inter-gender relationships. I shunned the other Americans, who weren't from New York; the Scandinavians were alternately out-of-my-league or talking about getting pregnant and going back to their single-mother utopia; the Austrians looked like they belonged in SS uniforms; there were no Icelandics, who I'd had a rapport with in '86 (fellow islanders?); the Italians were looking to marry each other; and the French had no use for me whatsoever.
Which is where my acceptance of villainy comes in.
JC: Why was the book/s significant to you then?
JR: I was drinking heavily. '86, it was Black & White whiskey, which was reasonably priced at the supermarché. '87, I found this cheap vodka with a blade of grass in it. (Until this writing that was all I had of the memory, but a quick internet search recovered the brand. Żubrówka, or Bison Vodka, is a rye distillate flavored with herbs and coumarin, a toxic substance which is a prohibited food additive in the United States.) Intermediate French class, which commenced weekday mornings at 9 AM, came suddenly, and lasted four hours -- in other words, forever. After class, I slept on the beach and rested up for an evening which would abruptly land me at the next 9 AM commencement of Intermediate French class. That year, I arrived on a Saturday, so by the second or third day of classes, I was in my groove. Nine AM, in class, staring into space. The French teacher, an elderly woman who'd brought up several sons, took a liking to me, and I was charmed by her hauteur, and we danced several times at the mingles, so I was generally ok on the academic front -- not failing, and not getting yelled at for being how I was. The trouble in French class: blonde-haired, green-eyed Jill P (yes, same initials as the previous summer), who was really worth staring at. In the evenings, I wore brown chinos and my striped yellow button up, threadbare, and jumped around the campus in my wingtips. Daytime, it was my beach attire: a cotton t-shirt (era of Miami Vice), and a pair of torn, black Superman shorts. The tear ran up the seam to my hip. I knew I was a mess, and that Jill had witnessed my assorted idiocies, and that she caught me staring at her all the time, so I finally gave up. Just kept staring. New addition to the daily itinerary: go to class, and stare at Jill P for four hours. She'd sometimes look over at me -- I'd be staring still, staring still -- and she'd quickly turn away, too unsettled to even whisper "creepy guy" to her friend. And I'd keep staring, not guilty, not self-conscious. Is Zen the word? It was some other form of enlightenment -- not a sinful delight, but still sharp, a divine entrancement of Hecate.
When I think of Jill that summer, I picture her the moment we first talked, leaning far, far away from me. And I picture her a few hours later, in her red dress, lying under me, on my twin bed under a window that looked to the sky. And I picture her on the beach, reading a book. A thick book. She'd settle behind her glasses and turn the pages.
Jill was a 27-year-old teen counselor from the middle of America, and engaged, which was ego fulfilling, though I'm not sure anything we did would have counted as infidelity -- mostly kissing in the dark. Years later, she sent me a picture of her newborn. Radiant child. I don't have the sense that there's any more to that past -- any discussion or postscript -- but I would like to know what book she was reading.
JC: Have you re-read "The Dark Knight"?
JR: A reader will sometimes find a thread -- a thread that connects one book to another to a hundred others. Superhero benchmarks, in graphic novel form, have enticed me -- "Venom," "The Death of Superman" -- but I'm otherwise unengaged by the genre. "The Dark Knight" shares themes with "The Ogre" by Michele Tournier, "A Clockwork Orange" by Anthony Burgess and "The Dwarf" by Par Lagerkvist -- all books that have impacted me. Whether or not I've picked up "The Dark Knight" again, I'm sure I've revisited it in the pages of other books. Not only to say that comics are derivative and that I've come across the sources, but to say that reading is always a return to our internal library.
I imagine a mountain of crumpled paper scraps, book recommendations. People often recommend books, rarely read based solely on a recommendation. The call to a book is at odds with mandate, final judgment, last word. The sublime purpose of a book is to fail, to perfectly articulate inexpressible experience.
We are as if locked in an eternal battle of the creative and the bureaucratic. The barbarian hoards -- occupied by Rome to this day. I sometimes survey a cocktail party and catch sight of the ongoing conflict. Institutional power or personal fulfillment. The library with Romanesque columns or the communion with a book on a hilltop.
The elevation of heroes has always been a convenience of the hierarchy. A narrative template of good and evil of civilization and discontent: oversimplification is the fundamental act of historical storytelling. It is the weave of the fairytale. Jesus himself is more likely an amalgam of revolutionary thinkers than an in-fact personage.
Numerical arguments, steady as worms, progress, render to compost the imperialization of literature. In the ---, there were ------ people. Today: ------. Let's say the population is 99% more literate (very conservative) and include women in the author pool. That gives us, for every great writer of the ------ century, ----- great writers today.
In the end, we'll see borders collapse, and the order of literature and the arts will follow. Perhaps some new form of localism will emerge: perhaps our great monument to the human spirit will be the human spirit; or perhaps Rome will rule unopposed, and our aristocracy will find justification for itself in the past, and the rest of us will blink our eyes in the dark.
Our present age is one of hero worship, of blind adulation for the greats, which is why literature is so boring: "every hero," to recall Ralph Waldo Emerson, "becomes a bore at last." The truth: right now, there are ten thousand people writing at Melville's level, and ten thousand others writing novels of murder and loss finer than anything Dostoevsky ever wrote. Better than read my recommendations, strike a line through one "required read" on your list, and go to the book store and pick something up, just because a few pages grabbed you, and read it.
JC: Have you returned to that place?
JR: I did return to the South of France. By then, I was in graduate school, and I was the responsible adult, looking out for my sixteen-year-old brother. It did turn out that I was an schmuck, though I can't boast it was my intention. Toward the end of the summer I met a Parisian woman who vacationed in Cannes. We'd get on airplanes and meet at customs, and I'd tour her around my city, and she'd tour me around hers. I wasn't fluent in French, but I was almost competent, and I fumbled through some cocktail parties in Paris. At the time, I was playing a lot of Judo, and working out in the gym, and I casually brushed aside the little French tourist photographers who were everywhere, snapping pictures that they'd try to sell me later. They talked too fast for me to understand them, but I treated them with a polite New York City disdain -- which I suspect resembled something very similar to an Iowan meathead dislike. Several years later, while playing "friends for sale" on Facebook, I was nicknamed "mystery man" (something like that, in French), at which point it was revealed to me I'd been dating the daughter of a political celebrity, and the photographers were paparazzi.
JC: What are you reading during the rest of the summer? Do you have a vacation planned?
JR: Los Angeles for a few days -- work and family, and it's generally a good idea to get out of New York the day your book comes out -- and I'm planning to drag along a tattered carpenter bag, filled with musty books, that I picked up at a flea market in Philadelphia. Old boxing titles. I have a fantasy of thumbing through them while thinking about this boxer musical that I've been working on, but haven't quite finished yet.-- Carolyn Kellogg