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Category: graphic novel

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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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?

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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

L.A. Times book prize winner Adam Hines and 'Duncan the Wonder Dog: Show One'

Duncanwonderdog Adam Hines, 27, won the L.A. Times book prize for graphic novel Friday night for his big, ambitious work, "Duncan the Wonder Dog: Show One."

"I started working on this book back in 2002, when I was 18, and only just finished last March, and that's a long time to work on something that you don't know will be of any good use to anyone," Hines said in his acceptance speech.

Hines went to Art Center in Pasadena for "a few weeks before dropping out." He talked about "Duncan the Wonder Dog" with our sibling blog Hero Complex.

HC: Your book tackles philosophy in a very unique way. Did you study philosophy? How did you assign different philosophical perspectives to different animals?

AH: I’ve never studied anything in any sort of “official” context; I’m an amateur in every respect. Philosophy as a practice is just endlessly fascinating to me, but you can get into trouble when using it as a guide for character motivations or actions. People just aren’t that intellectually explicable. But I wanted early on to show that not only are wild animals very different from humans, but every animal is very different from every other kind of animal. And as for assigning them different perspectives, there was no set system or approach. It was only what felt right for that character or scene.

HC: What about mathematics?

AH: Mathematics are a big part of the book, and a huge overriding part of the series, and will get more prominent as the books go on. For “Show One,” though, it is mostly used as framing devices, ways to set up the panels. I wanted it to always be there, but mostly in the background, supporting the story. 

Read more of the interview with Adam Hines here.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Festival of Books: The 'delicate and complicated language' of graphic novels

Graphic novels

"World in a Frame: The Graphic Novel" was one of the few Saturday panels at the Festival of Books where words were secondary to a more complex process of writing.

"Doing good comics, you shouldn’t think of yourself as a writer and illustrator," said Daniel Clowes, author of "Mister Wonderful" and "Wilson." "You should look at yourself as a cartoonist. You have to think of everything as one piece. It’s a very delicate and complicated language.”

L.A. Times staff writer Geoff Boucher moderated the panel, which included Clowes as well as Jim Woodring and Dash Shaw. Discussion drifted to the transition from black and white to color ink and then how and where they develop material.

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Jennifer Egan wins L.A. Times book prize in fiction


This post has been corrected. See note at the bottom for details.

Jennifer Egan's "A Visit from the Goon Squad," won the L.A. Times 2010 book prize for fiction, it was announced in a ceremony in Los Angeles on Friday night. The top nonfiction prize went to Micahel Lewis for his book "The Big Short."

Read more about the prizes here.

The Los Angeles Times 2010 Book Prize winners:

•Fiction: Jennifer Egan, "A Visit From the Goon Squad" (Knopf)

•Nonfiction: Michael Lewis, "The Big Short" (W.W. Norton)

•Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction: Peter Bognanni, "The House of Tomorrow" (Amy Einhorn Books/Putnam)

•Biography: Laura Hillenbrand, "Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience & Redemption" (Random House)

•Graphic Novel: Adam Hines, "Duncan the Wonder Dog: Show One" (AdHouse Books)

•History: Thomas Powers, "The Killing of Crazy Horse" (Knopf)

•Mystery-Thriller: Tom Franklin, "Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter" (William Morrow)

•Poetry: Maxine Kumin, "Where I Live: New & Selected Poems 1990-2010" (W. W. Norton & Company)

•Science & Technology: Oren Harman, "The Price of Altruism: George Price and the Search for the Origins of Kindness" (W. W. Norton & Company)

•Young Adult Literature: Megan Whalen Turner, "A Conspiracy of Kings" (Greenwillow/HarperCollins)

For the record, 12:38 a.m. April 30: In an earlier version of this post, the title of the winner of the fiction prize was incorrectly given as "Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience & Redemption" in the list of winners.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: Jennifer Egan. Credit: Jennifer S. Altman / For The Times

Book prize nominee: Karl Stevens


Karl Stevens' "The Lodger" is one of the finalists for the graphic novel award at the L.A. Times book prizes on Friday. Our sibling blog Hero Complex is talking to each of the five finalists this week, leading up to Friday's awards.

First up is Stevens, who self-published "The Lodger" -- a semi-autobiographical story about dropping out of art school, losing his girlfriend and moving into an ex-professor's house. 

NC: How true is "The Lodger?

KS: It’s pretty true. It’s strange because there are parts [that are] like writing dialogue. I’m not like tape-recording every conversation that I have. There were things that happened that I would just tweak to make it more interesting or more funny. They’re all real names. There was a girl I dated named Ann. Cookie's real. She’s outside my door right now. They’re fantastic. Tony was great. After I dropped out of art school, Tony kind of took me under his wing, and I would come over here all the time for dinners and stuff, and he would introduce me to other artists and teachers, and he would come by to the place I was living in a different part of the city, and kind of like mentor me. It was really sweet. And when I needed a place, it just happened to coincide, because they would always have people living in the house, cause it’s really big, and I think it’s good for their marriage....

NC: There’s a subtlety to your art that you don’t normally see in comics.

KS: That’s my whole thing. That’s what I was trying to stammer out earlier, that I really want to make comics very subtle. For the past 100 years there have only been a few exceptions, and I feel like that can really be explored. Even the ones that are about just people, even those have a certain kind of exaggerated quality that just seems false. I’m going to shut up before I start ranting.

NC: Who would you list as your influences, then?

KS: Rembrandt. He’s pretty good. He’s pretty amazing. I aspire to be more like him.

Read the complete interview here.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Image: "The Lodger" by Karl Stevens

2011 Hugo Award nominees announced


Nominations for 2011 Hugo Awards, which are among the highest honors bestowed in science fiction and fantasy writing, were announced at a conference held during Easter weekend. Finalists will be announced at a ceremony in August.

More than 1,000 nominating ballots were counted, for finalists in diverse categories that include  novella, short form editor, fan writer and related work (which includes the fantastic title, "Chicks Dig Time Lords: A Celebration of Doctor Who by the Women Who Love It," edited by Lynne M. Thomas and Tara O’Shea). Members of Renovation, the 69th World Science Fiction Convention, will vote on the winners.

2011 Hugo Award finalists in the major category of novel are Connie Willis' "Blackout/All Clear," Lois McMaster Bujold's "Cryoburn," Ian McDonald's "The Dervish House," Mira Grant's "Feed" and N.K. Jemisin's "The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms." Films that were honored with dramatic presentation, long form nominations are "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1," "How to Train your Dragon," "Inception," "Scott Pilgrim vs. The World" and "Toy Story 3."

 The complete list of finalists is after the jump.

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The Reading Life: Joe Ollmann's 'Mid-Life' blues

Mid-lifeOn the acknowledgments page of Joe Ollmann's graphic novel, "Mid-Life," there's a portrait of the artist as an old man, talking to his young son. "Sam," he says, "I'm gonna draw myself old and fat in this new semi-fictitious comic book. Won't that be hilarious?" To which the kid responds (in a thought bubble only): "Oh, Lord."

What you make of such a moment pretty much predicts how you'll respond to Ollmann's graphic roman a clef. As for me, I laugh every time I read it, less in hilarity than in a kind of grimly comic solidarity.

"Mid-Life"  is exactly what its title promises: a portrait of the indignities of middle age. Through Ollmann's fictional alter ego, a 40-year-old photo editor named John, we experience all the petty degradations of adulthood, from parenting to the working life. When, in the middle of the book, John complains about the cat his twentysomething daughter has dumped on him, his plaintive wail -- "Why do I have to be the one to deal with everything? Why is this all my responsibility?" -- is that of every parent who has been left holding the bag. But it is her answer ("Because you're the adult here") that truly resonates, for this is one of the key tensions of Ollmann's story: that no matter how old John's kids get, he will never stop being Dad.

Ollmann knows this territory firsthand; like his character, he had daughters young, and then a son with his second wife. Yet by deciding to frame his book as fiction, he opens the aperture, highlighting the universal in the particular, and drawing us into the story's big concerns. These involve work and family, to be sure, but more to the point, they have to do with compromise and mortality, frailty and age. It's tricky territory because it could easily get self-indulgent, but Ollmann almost never falters, portraying a life that is no less fraught for being relatively mundane.

John laments the slow collapse of his body, his tendency to drink too much. He worries about his daughters' happiness and their ability to strike out on their own. He obsesses over his invisibility, the way women don't notice him anymore. It's all so common, you could almost overlook it as the substance of art, were it not for the acuity and grace with which Ollmann recreates John's world.

Eventually, John does something stupid, as we know he must, and the book shifts from a documentary account into more of a narrative.

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David L. Ulin on Adrian Tomine

Tomine_marriage Adrian Tomine's "Scenes from an Impending Marriage: A Prenuptial Memoir" was first conceived as a party favor for guests at his wedding, or at least that's what we're supposed to think. Whether or not this is really true is beside the point, since either way, it offers a useful strategy for thinking about the book.

Tomine has always been a master of the small gesture, as anyone familiar with his work knows. Such encounters motivate the deceptively informal stories in his series "Optic Nerve," as well as his graphic novel "Shortcomings," which explores the limits of identity and intimacy. With "Scenes from an Impending Marriage," though, he seems almost willfully understated, tracing, in a series of offhand comics, the peculiar rigors of the wedding dance, from guest lists to seating charts to invitations and beyond.

That this is the perfect approach to an event that has become fetishized in our culture should go without saying: Tomine's point is not to play into (or even against) perceptions about marriage so much as to particularize his account. It's not even the wedding that's important (it does not appear here), but rather the interaction between Tomine and his fiancée Sarah as they try to create a ceremony that will have meaning for them.

"You need to stop approaching this like you're doing people a favor by not inviting them," Sarah tells Tomine about his reluctance to add to the guest list. "Okay," he replies, "but I also think you shouldn't use this as an opportunity to make amends or re-connect with everyone you've ever known." It's a vivid interaction, made moreso by its kicker -- "Boy ... People would really be appalled if they ever heard some of these discussions," which, of course, suggests the irony and revelation of the autobiographical form. And yet, for anyone who's ever made up such a guest list, the details resonate, highlighting the ability of such a story to extend beyond itself. That's what Tomine does so beautifully, here as in his other work, using his experience to create a portal into our own.

"Scenes from an Impending Marriage" is a short book, barely 50 pages, but it reverberates with an unexpected depth. This is a function not only of content but also of form, which, at times, reflects some unlikely antecedents. A one-panel strip called "Exercise" is reminiscent of the syndicated strip "The Family Circus," with its circular frame. Elsewhere, Tomine and Sarah cry out, "WAAAAAAAHH!!" in exasperation, their heads back and mouths open like Charlie Brown and Sally in "Peanuts."

That's part of the fun of the book, finding the points of reference, as it were. But more essential, Tomine has created a heartfelt, recognizable portrait of the anxiety that surrounds the public declaration of love. "My hero!" Sarah declares on their wedding night, after he goes out at 4 a.m. to bring back food. The two of them sit on their hotel bed, eating and looking at each other. "Holy ....," Tomine says. "We're married."

-- David L. Ulin


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