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David L. Ulin on Sergio Aragones

Sergio Aragonés is a pure cartoonist -- one who works in pictures, not in words. Since 1963, he has also been among the most prolific contributors to MAD Magazine, for which he has drawn tens of thousands of strips, many of them one or two panel gags, under the umbrella title “A MAD Look At …” In the front matter to “MAD’s Greatest Artists: Sergio Aragonés, Five Decades of His Finest Works” (Running Press: 272 pp., $29.95), former editor Nick Meglin explains that although the artist’s first feature for the magazine, “A MAD Look at the U.S. Space Effort,” was bought as a “one-shot,” he “carved a niche for himself to create pantomime gags on any given subject.” That’s a good thing, or else my childhood (like many of yours, I suspect) would have been considerably poorer; I’ve been a fan of Aragonés’ skewed visual caricatures since I was 8 or 9.

“Five Decades of His Finest Works” begins with that first cartoon and traces Aragonés’ efforts up to the present, ending with “A MAD Look at Hard Times.” It’s a fascinating journey, both because of the constancy of his style and vision and what it suggests about how the world has changed. From the space race to hard times in 47 years: What better metaphor for the slow fade of American promise, the inexorable progression from the New Frontier to the end of the line? This is what MAD has long excelled at, that secret subversive vision, and with his pointed ability to pierce our illusions, Aragonés is a major reason why.

Aragonés is also a master of the visual gag. In “Pollution Alert,” a four-panel comic from the 1970s, workers investigate a pipe that’s leaking sludge into a stream; by the final frame, they have transformed the leak into a torrent: Job well done. In “A MAD Look at Sexual Harassment,” a flasher opens his coat to two young women, only to slink off in embarrassment as they laugh at him. Silly? Yes. Childish? Perhaps. But here we have the mission, for both Aragonés and MAD itself -- to make us think by highlighting the absurdity of everything, the iron fist in the velvet glove.

-- David L. Ulin

See a gallery of Sergion Aragonés cartoons.

Image: "The Vampire" by Sergio Aragonés. Credit: Sergio Aragones, from "MAD’s Greatest Artists: Sergio Aragonés, Five Decades of His Finest Works" by Running Press.

Book review: 'The Incredible Double' by Owen Hill


Clay Blackburn,  the hero of Owen Hill's elegant and understated novel "The Incredible Double" (PM Press: 128 pp., $13.95 paper), is not your typical detective. For one thing, he's a book scout: a guy who haunts used bookstores and estate sales, looking for the one or two items of real value. For another, he's a poet, with a couple of chapbooks to his name. Most tellingly, he's the kind of enlightened anarchist who could only come from Berkeley, where he lives not far from the "world famous open-air asylum" that is Telegraph Avenue.

And yet, a detective Clay is, after his own odd fashion -- working without a license and without a net. In "The Incredible Double," he is asked to investigate death threats against a drugstore mogul named Jerry Wally (think Sam Walton with an attitude), only to be drawn quickly down the rabbit hole.

"The Incredible Double" is the second Blackburn mystery (the first was 2002's "The Chandler Apartments"), but to categorize it as a work of genre fiction is to miss the point. Rather it is a work of fiction that plays with genre, that slyly tips its hat to the conventions of the hard-boiled tradition even as it uses them to its own ends.

Like many great detectives, Clay likes to mix it up in the bedroom, although as opposed to Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe, he's not straight but bi. And like many great detectives, he also has a sidekick, "an old lefty, and very active," who tells Clay that he's "rooting for the killer" when he discovers the nature of the job. "The guy's a pig," he says of Jerry Wally. "Undercuts the competition, beats the unions. Middle America loves him, though. He's been born again, and he gives 'em cheap Twinkies."

The real power of the book comes in its evocation of Berkeley, which is, as anyone who's spent much time there recognizes, a universe unto itself. Among the novel's supporting characters are a homeless man named Bruce, a sexually ambiguous ex-FBI agent and a cross-section of East Bay poseurs and left-behinds. "She was a bundle of clichés," Clay thinks about one such character, "but again, I wasn't noticing. Or maybe it's that in Berkeley we live with a different set of clichés." As for what these clichés are, Hill is merciless in his social satire. At a bookstore poetry reading -- poetry is a major theme within the novel -- he observes that "Leonard Cohen's first album was, I swear, playing on a turntable next to the register. Berkeley."

This is territory that Hill knows well -- he is himself a Berkeley bookseller and poet -- and he gets its details with a fluid delicacy. At the same time, "The Incredible Double" is no work of self-reflective irony. The mystery is real, the stakes are high; some people make it through while others ... well, let's just say they're compromised. Here we have the essence of noir, a sense of life lived at the edges, which is, come to think of it, a pretty good description of Clay's world.

-- David L. Ulin

Photo: Shane Scully, 27, one of the homeless on Telegraph Avenue, hangs out with others and talks about life on the street in 1998. Credit: Los Angeles Times


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