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Category: comics

The Reading Life: Harvey Pekar's Jewish question

This is part of the occasional series "The Reading Life" by book critic David L. Ulin.

When Harvey Pekar died, two years ago today, at the age of 70, he left behind a contradictory legacy. On the one hand, his "American Splendor" remains one of the most compelling and transformative series in the history of comics: autobiographical slices of life in which Pekar wrestles with his job as a VA file clerk, with his mania for collecting, with the city of Cleveland -- where he was born and where he died -- and perhaps most significantly, with himself.

This is not to say "American Splendor" is self-absorbed, except it is -- in the best and most interesting of ways. When Pekar's on his game, he's like a street corner Samuel Beckett, pondering the absurdity of existence while embracing, in his own curmudgeonly fashion, all the struggles it entails.

I've written before about "Hypothetical Quandary," in which, over the course of three brief pages, he frames a Sunday morning trip to the bakery as an existential meditation, moving from the futility of his own striving and obsession to the sustaining, if fleeting, aroma of fresh bread. As with many of Pekar's stories, almost nothing happens, and yet something important is resolved.

For all that, Pekar spent the last few years of his career focusing on a different sort of story: piece work ranging from graphic histories of the Beats and Students for a Democratic Society to a comics adaptation of Studs Terkel's "Working." I can't say I blame him; he was always short of money, and after a lifetime as a cult hero, the 2003 film adaptation of "American Splendor" opened up a lot of opportunities. At the same time, there's something flat about such efforts, as if Pekar were going through the motions.

Both of these conflicting impulses -- that of the engaged autobiographer and of the freelancer fulfilling an assignment -- emerge in Pekar's final graphic memoir, "Not the Israel My Parents Promised Me." It's an interesting book, if a bit schizophrenic, melding Pekar's lifelong internal debate about his Jewishness and more specifically the state of Israel, with a capsule history of the Jews.

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Graphic memoir: Sarah Leavitt's 'Tangles'

Sarahleavitt_tanglesIt’s tough to read Sarah Leavitt’s “Tangles: A Story About Alzheimer’s, My Mother, and Me” without thinking of Alison Bechdel. Both artists use comics -- what we might call graphic memoir -- to get at the deepest of family (dis)connections, and both possess an almost fearless willingness to reveal. Yet whereas Bechdel is interior, obsessive, always turning her story back on itself, Leavitt is more off the cuff, using a series of short, almost standalone fragments to frame a collage-like portrait of the effects of early-onset Alzheimer’s.

Leavitt’s mother was 52 when she began to exhibit symptoms of the disease; for the next eight years, until her death at 60, she and the family struggled with her slow but steady diminishment. For Leavitt, this is primarily a personal story -- or more accurately, a story about the loss of the personal, about becoming untracked in the world.

Halfway through the book, Leavitt makes this explicit by asking her mother to participate in a video. The older woman agrees, suggesting they begin with the day she got lost. “I knew I had to walk down Smythe Street to our house,” she recalls of the experience. “Part way down, I got lost. I mean, I could see where I had to go, but I couldn’t figure out how to get there. It seemed so far away.... I could see further down the hill, but it didn’t make sense.”

Here, Leavitt parts the curtains on Alzheimer’s just a little, recording it from the inside by evoking in her mother’s language the disorientation, the loss of place, the inability to make connections that the disease provokes. A similar breakdown, of course, afflicts the family, which gradually loses its ability to communicate, to breach Alzheimer’s walls. “I caught myself wondering what Mom thought of herself,” Leavitt writes. “I realized that part of me believed the real Mom lived somewhere else, unchanging, immortal, observing the new Mom.”

What she’s getting at is the essence of who we are and how we operate, of what underlies our neurons, what defines identity. “This is a hard thing to say,” her mother says after Leavitt shows her a few pages of this book, at the time a work in progress. “I’m not a real person.”

But what defines reality? That’s the central question, although “Tangles” doesn’t (can’t) provide an answer. And yet, in framing her loss and her uncertainty through the lens of love, Leavitt manages to find a fragile resolution: conditional, moving, rigorous and heartbreaking at once.


Interview: Art Spiegelman taps the source

Review: Alison Bechdel's "Are You My Mother?"

David L. Ulin on Adrian Tomine's "Scenes from an Impending Marriage"

-- David L. Ulin

'Diary of a Wimpy Kid' vs. 'Diary of a Zombie Kid'

In the first corner, in the blue book jacket: the wildly successful "Diary of a Wimpy Kid" series by Jeff Kinney. In the opposite corner, "Diary of a Zombie Kid" in splatter-red.

The second is meant to be a parody of the popular children's books, but according to lawyers for "Wimpy Kid" creator Kinney, it's not funny: It's trademark and copyright infringement. A suit was filed Tuesday in Massachusetts, Publishers Weekly reports:

In the filing, Wimpy Kid noted that since the publication of the first book in April 2007 it has rapidly become a “cultural phenomenon,” selling more than 52 million copies, with merchandising that includes T-shirts, hats, action figures, swimwear, and board games. It calls Diary of a Zombie Kid “a counterfeit, copy, and/or colorable imitation.”

Abrams, which has published all six books in the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series, declined to comment on the lawsuit. At press time, PW was unable to reach Joe Dunn, publisher of Antarctic Press in San Antonio, Tex. [which published "Diary of a Zombie Kid"], or Antarctic’s counsel, copyright attorney William E. Maguire.

The success of the "Wimpy Kid" series has rubbed off on "Zombie Kid," which was selling at a respectable No. 50 spot on Amazon's comics and graphic novels bestseller list earlier this week.

Zombies have been treading their leaden steps into literature since Seth Grahame-Smith's surprise 2009 hit, "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies." The brain-hungry undead might have seemed an odd match for Jane Austen, but there was one thing that made them a perfect fit: Austen's work is in the public domain. Anyone can remake, retool or mash up "Pride and Prejudice," however, whenever they like.

Jeff Kinney's work? Not so much.

As of this writing, a second "Zombie Kid" book is slated to be released in January.


Interview: Jeff Kinney on his movie-bound 'Wimpy Kid'

'Pride and Prejudice and Zombies' -- there's an app for that

Seth Grahame-Smith discusses 'Pride and Prejudice and Zombies'

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Images: Left, Jeff Kinney's "Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Cabin Fever." Credit: Amulet Books. Right, "Diary of a Zombie Kid." Credit: Antarctic Press

Tintin, as seen by Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson

A long time ago (in July) in a land far away (Comic-Con in San Diego), our sibling blog Hero Complex sat down with Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson to talk about bringing Hergé's beloved character Tintin to life. Their 3-D movie, "The Adventures of Tintin" -- produced by Jackson and directed by Spielberg -- opens Wednesday.

Hergé was a Belgian artist who began writing and drawing Tintin as a comic strip in 1929. The strips, which became wildly popular around the world, were collected in two dozen books featuring the young adventurous reporter Tintin and his dog Snowy. "I read Tintin before I could read," said Jackson, who is from New Zealand. Hero Complex writes:

“With this project, I was excited first just as a Tintin fan to know that I was finally going to see the film version by Steven that I had been reading about since 1983 in interviews and magazines,” Jackson said, acknowledging the long and winding path of the project.

Spielberg had never heard of Tintin before 1981, when he read European reviews of “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and saw repeated comparisons between the Hergé character and his own globe-trotting hero. He secured the rights to make a movie but the project sat on his shelf for years....

"The Adventures of Tintin" was released in Europe two months ago; the movie, which had a $130-million budget, has already earned $239 million worldwide. But does it portray the Tintin readers love?

“What I’ve tried to do with my contribution to the film was to lock in to the different ways that I loved Tintin both as a child and as an adult,” Jackson told Hero Complex. “Hopefully, the film will work on that level, with all the things young viewers will enjoy but also the humor and satire that an adult will pick up. If we can lock in to that DNA that Hergé created, well, that’s the plan.”

After the jump: the movie trailer for "The Adventures of Tintin."

Continue reading »

Interview: Art Spiegelman taps the source

In Sunday's Arts & Books, book critic David L. Ulin talks to Art Spiegelman about his new book "MetaMaus." In it, Spiegelman continues what has been a 20-year effort to come to terms with his graphic memoir, "Maus," the story of both his father's experience in the Holocaust and Spiegelman's trouble grappling with it -- and, by extension, with his heritage. Originally serialized in Spiegelman's "commix" magazine RAW, "Maus" has become a contemporary classic, a work of surpassing complexity and empathy that asks difficult questions about complicity and authority, recognizing that, as Spiegelman has said elsewhere, "As soon as you try to tell the truth, you’re always lying." Here is more of the conversation.

Jacket Copy: Given the digital component of "MetaMaus" -- a DVD featuring the complete "Maus," as well as numerous annotations, or enhancements -- it's interesting that it is so beautifully, and consciously, designed as a book.

Art Spiegelman: I think that, as we move into the new planet of post-Gutenberg whatever, what's required is that everything be thought through. There are some things that are far better on an iPad or a Kindle than they are as a book. There are some things that can't make the transition easily, and there are some things that can barely make the transition at all. Form justifies the various decisions that get made in certain books -- like page dimensions, like those fantastic, cool "Little Nemo" comics printed full scale, on a full broadsheet page. That's not going to fit on an iPad, and it shouldn't fit on an iPad; it's a wonderful thing as it is. It's not a gimmick, it's the only way to get what you really want from Winsor McCay.

In making "MetaMaus," I was as engaged in the design as I was in the text and choice of pictures. So it was a totally graphic work. Not commix, but a co-mix of words and pictures. The idea was to match up the words to the pictures precisely. If there's a picture that I'm referring to in the text, I wanted you to be able to see it on the same spread. That's intrinsic to this particular thing. But also, with the kinds of color separations and printing that are available now, it's possible to make the most beautiful books since the Middle Ages, even though the technology that makes it possible is also kicking the book off into some kind of limbo.

JC: That's the responsibility of any writer or book artist in the current moment: Be conscious. You can't take form for granted anymore.

AS: It's that old McLuhan thing yet again -- which I came across when I was first making comics, the Faustian deal made in the 1970s, which was: OK, if comics are going to survive into another century, they have to become art or die. Because they're not part of the mass mass media anymore. And now the book itself is moving into that territory. So if we're going to go through the incredible labor, the intensive production work, that, for instance, was involved in getting "MetaMaus" to be right, then it has to need to be that thing. Otherwise, why bother?

Continue reading »

Preview: Art Spiegelman's 'MetaMaus'

Twenty-five years ago, Art Spiegelman's "Maus" was published, opening a window into the depth and seriousness that comics as a form could tell. A chronicle of World War II in which the Jews are mice and the Nazis are cats, Spiegelman and his father, a Holocaust survivor, both figure in the text. After the conclusion, "Maus II," came out five years later, Spiegelman was awarded a special Pulitzer Prize.

But that was not the end of "Maus," which has been repackaged as a box set and as a single book. Now, publishing Tuesday, is "MetaMaus," a stunning hardcover book from Spiegelman about the making of "Maus," which includes a multimedia DVD. Spiegelman introduces "MetaMaus" in the video above; keep an eye out for our review of the book, coming soon.


Art Spiegelman discusses "Breakdowns: Portrait of the Artist as a Young %@&*!"

L.A. Times Graphic Novel Book Prize winner: "Duncan the Wonder Dog: Show One" by Adam Hines

David L. Ulin on Adrian Tomine's "Scenes from an Impending Marriage"

-- Carolyn Kellogg

West Hollywood Book Fair coming Sunday

Sunday marks the 10th anniversary of the West Hollywood Book Fair, an event that features booths, panels, performance stages, a reading area for kids and book signings.

Some highlights include:

Jackie Collins -- the queen of bad-girl bestsellers is scheduled to appear at 1 p.m.;

Justin Torres -- the rising short fiction star is on the 10:30 a.m. panel, "New Fiction from LGBT Authors";

Meredith Baxter at 2:15 p.m. and Tatum O'Neal at 4:15 p.m. -- the actresses will each discuss their memoirs;

Len Wein, co-creator of "Swamp Thing" and "Wolverine," appears on the panel "Comics to Screen and Back Again" at 4:00 p.m.;

Two actresses from the original "Dark Shadows" cast -- Lara Parker and Karthryn Lee Scott -- join  Catwoman (1966-'67) Julie Newmar at 3:30 p.m.;

Simon Reynolds -- the author of "Retromania" appears on the 12:15 p.m. panel "Rockers, Ravers, Roadies and other Rabble-Rousers in Music Land";

Novelists Gary Phillips and Naomi Hirahara, comics creator Joshua Dysart and nonfiction writer Adam Winkler cross genres to discuss our fascination with guns and violence at 11 a.m.

Appearing from the L.A. Times are Book Critic David L. Ulin (in conversation with novelist Lisa See); journalist Hector Tobar, discussing his debut novel, "The Barbarian Nurseries" with novelist Susan Straight; and Deborah Vankin, talking about her graphic novel for young adults, "Poseurs."

The West Hollywood Book Fair begins at 10 a.m. and ends at 6 p.m.; it includes free parking. The brand new West Hollywood Library, which is just down the way, is closed Sundays -- but it's holding its grand opening Saturday, for those who want to get a look inside.

At the West Hollywood Book Fair, there are also snacks and drinks. Last year, on a very hot fall day, the Hawaiian Ice cart was very popular -- this year, other carts may present some competition -- temperatures are supposed to stay in the 70s.


Photos from the 2010 West Hollywood Book Fair

PEN Center USA Awards to feature Dave Eggers, Robert Pinsky

The West Hollywood Book Fair 2009: from Brady to zombies

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: The 2010 West Hollywood Book Fair. Credit: Carolyn Kellogg

Literary highlights of Comic-Con


By now most everyone has packed up and left San Diego in the wake of Comic-Con, which wrapped up its four-day run Sunday. The conference is a gigantic celebration of comics, movies and fan culture; this year, there were a few particularly bookish highlights.

John Cusack talked about playing Edgar Allan Poe in "The Raven." The 2012 film, named after the author's famous poem, focuses on the mysterious last days of Poe's life -- he died at age 40 in 1849 in Baltimore, possibly from overindulgence in alcohol. "I saw some of Hunter S. Thompson in Poe -- his unflinching ability to delve into the abyss and come back. He reminded me of Hunter in that way," Cusack said at his panel, where he called the author "the godfather of Goth." Hero Complex reports that to amp up the story of the writer's final days, the filmmakers have thrown in a serial killer plot. Oh, Hollywood.

Poe_3dmasks Poe was seen elsewhere at the convention, specifically, on the faces of the audience at the preview of Francis Ford Coppola's movie "Twixt." The film is an original script by Coppola, and is about a horror writer (played by Val Kilmer, who also attended) whose career is in decline and who begins having dreams of orphan girls and a certain long-dead author. The movie is partially -- only partially -- in 3-D, and the Poe masks served as 3-D glasses. Coppola told Hero Complex:

[W]e were in Constantinople and I was meeting with a Turkish lawyer whose sister shows up at dinner and they start giving me this beverage called raki, which is very alcoholic, and I went home to my hotel, fell asleep and had this vivid dream. It was all this Edgar Allan Poe imagery and the scary forest and this little girl with braces saying, “You’re looking at my teeth! You’re looking at my teeth!” and children coming out of a grave in the floor, and then Edgar Allan Poe shows up and I was saying, “This is a gift. I’m being given a story” and I said to Poe, “Guide me.”

If that's not enough Poe for you, stay tuned for a possible Poe television show. In January, ABC picked up a pilot for "a crime procedural" that stars Poe, "the world's very first detective, as he uses unconventional methods to investigate dark mysteries in 1840s Boston." Right.

But back to Comic-Con. For the first time the top prize at the Eisner Awards ended in a tie. Both "Wilson" by Daniel Clowes and "Return of the Dapper Men" by Jim McCann and Janet Lee were awarded the Best Graphic Album-New prize, the top graphic novel award at the Eisners. Other winners included writer Joe Hill for his work on "Locke and Key"; Hill is the son of novelist Stephen King.

Another first: Steven Spielberg made his first ever Comic-Con appearance, with his adaptation of Hergé's classic comic series, "The Adventures of Tintin." The well-loved series launched in 1929 and has been published in 80 languages. Before Spielberg began showing footage from his motion-capture film, he asked, "How many here have ever read a Tintin book?" and recieved a cheer in response, Hero Complex reports. "That makes my job easier," Spielberg said. 

Another literary adaptation discussed at Comic-Con was "Paradise Lost," an adaptation of John Milton's epic poem. Star Bradley Cooper, who read the classic work as an undergrad at Georgetown University, appeared on a panel where he talked about taking on the role of Lucifer. Cooper's take: It's an "intimate family story" and he'll be giving the devil his own sympathetic spin.


Happy birthday, Edgar Allan Poe

Print and fold your own Edgar Allan Poe

Bradley Cooper may play the devil in "Paradise Lost"

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photos, from top: John Cusack as Edgar Allan Poe on the set of "The Raven" in Budapest in 2010; Poe masks at Comic-Con. Credits: Bea Kallos / European Pressphoto Agency; Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times


Neil Gaiman sings (sort of) 'The Problem with Saints'

The show with Neil Gaiman and Josh Ritter was sold out Friday night. Luckily, Minnesota Public Radio has kindly shared videos of the live stage show "Wits," recorded at the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul, Minn. The show often combines musical and literary guests. This number showcases circus-y horns and excellent backup singers in addition to the vocal stylings of bestselling author Neil Gaiman, whose many successes include "Anansi Boys," "The Graveyard Book," "Coraline" and "The Sandman" comic book series.

-- Carolyn Kellogg


Come September, DC Comics will begin with No. 1

Greenlantern66 Come September, DC Comics will begin anew. All its comics will begin with No. 1 and it will retool its major characters, including Green Lantern, Wonder Woman, Batman and Superman.

The expert on all things comics, Hero Complex, reports:

[T]he company, which has been publishing comics for 76 years, also said it would start selling digital copies of its printed ongoing superhero titles through apps and a website the same day they're released in comic shops, a move dubbed by the industry as day-and-date sales. That will affect the company’s superhero titles....

USA Today reported that DC’s move will start with the first issue of “Justice League” No. 1 in September, which will reunite the classic lineup of Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, the Flash, Aquaman and Green Lantern. The newspaper reported that 52 issues, all starting at No. 1, will be released starting at the end of the summer. “Justice League” is the first and will be written by DC’s chief creative officer Geoff Johns and illustrated by co-publisher Jim Lee, the first time the pair have collaborated together, the company said.

Lee has also designed the costumes of more than 50 characters, the paper reported. In a note to direct-market retailers, Bob Wayne, senior vice president for sales, said by rebooting the superhero titles and moving to day-and-date digital sales, DC was positioning itself to let readers experience characters in a new light.

“We have taken great care in maintaining continuity where most important, but fans will see a new approach to our storytelling,” he said in the letter. “Some of the characters will have new origins, while others will undergo minor changes. Our characters are always being updated; however, this is the first time all of our characters will be presented in a new way all at once.”

Will the long-running Action Comics and Detective Comics also begin anew? The company isn't saying for sure. The titles reached No. 900 and No. 877, respectively, earlier this year. Superman debuted in Action Comics No. 1, a copy of which sold for $1 million in 2010. If the title is rebooted, I guess that would make it Action Comics No. 1 No. 1.


Action Comics #1 pushes Superman to new heights

Million-dollar comics: First Superman, now Batman

Nicholas Cage's stolen Superman debut comic found in storage locker

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Image: Green Lantern No. 66. Credit: DC Comics


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