Archive for the '(favorite shit)' Category

Luigi Serafini – Storie Naturali Photo Gallery

It was recently pointed out to me by my very astute wife that my clever titles, while endearing, probably hurt my blog’s googleability (as does the fact that I almost always refer to “Serafini” and “The Codex” rather than “Luigi Serafini” and “The Codex Seraphinianus”).  So, this post’s title is boring for a reason – I’m flirting with search bots ever-so-delicately.

So, it’s an exciting day for this Serafini enthusiast.  After only a week of waiting, I received Serafini’s new book – an illustrated deluxe edition of Jules Renard’s Storie Naturali in the mail today.  Untrue to form, I will post a bunch of pictures first and then offer my extraneous commentary below.

Cardboard shipping box

Front cover, with original "Storie Naturali" cover as a pastedown

Front cover, with original "Storie Naturali" cover as a pastedown

The case-binding

Title Page

Interior spread

Leaves in pockets (20 die-cut leaves are removable)

Interior spread

Interior spread

Interior spread (it wouldn't be Serafini without eggs somewhere)

Interior spread

Interior spread

Interior spread

Interior spread

Interior spread (King Botto makes an appearance)

Colophon page (with Serafinian writing, including the Serafinian signature)

Serafini's signature and seal (note King Botto in the seal)

Some of the removable leaves

So, it is obvious from the above pictures that this is a remarkable book – just the amount of die-cutting to make those leaves on its own is impressive, as is the effort it must have taken to insert twenty leaves into each copy.  The quality of the materials is very nice as well – the paper is very heavy with a nice texture, and the boards are extra-thick, which makes the book feel very substantial.  Like the best FMR books, it is obvious that you are holding a deluxe book before you even open the cover.  The printing, while not on the same level as the original editions of the Codex Seraphinianus, is very vibrant as well (better than the current Rizzoli editions).  And, in a neat tip of the hat to history, the front and rear cover have pastedowns showing the original covers of Storie Naturali as published by BUR in 1959.

So – a couple thoughts, now that I have had a full day to look through and absorb this book.  First, although value and prices are of course subjective, I had no problem with the 300-Euro price tag on this book, if for no other reason than the fact that it is signed by Serafini.  The only other signed Serafini edition is the FMR first-edition of the Codex, which sells in the thousands.  Plus, the limitation on this book – 660 copies – is smaller than any edition of the Codex, leading me to believe that this one might not be around for very long.  It’s never easy to predict what will happen to a book like this, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it was around for a couple years before it sold out from the publisher, especially since BUR is doing almost no promotion outside of Italy (as far as I know, I was the first person to blog about it, except for a line in Serafini’s Wikipedia entry added in January – and I didn’t find out about it until 4 months after it was published).  None of the other European online bookstores I look at are carrying it – only Italian stores.  So, it takes some doing to track it down, and then you have to have a spare 300 Euros laying around (or a credit card, in my case).  But, I am pretty sure there won’t be a trade edition of this book, since it is a special edition of a book by Jules Renard – the trade edition is the paperback you can get for $10.  For Serafini fans, it would make sense to make a trade edition, but this isn’t a Serafini book, per se – it is catalogued under Renard’s name, with Serafini as the illustrator.

That being said, this is very much a Serafini “A” item, on the same level as the Codex Seraphinianus and the Pulcinellopedia Piccola.  Although the text belongs to Renard, the world inside the book is Renard as interpreted through Serafini’s worldview.  He isn’t just illustrating the book as much as he is providing a view into the world of a reader (himself) of Renard’s world.  And, as we’re already well aware, Serafini’s world is dominated by its own logic, a logic that mirrors ours but also brings its idiosyncracies into neon-lit relief.  Here, we have a multitude of leaves, but each leaf plays off the conventional biological blueprint of a leaf by introducing characteristically bizarre inhabitants or states.  One leaf features a microscopic tennis game being played on its surface, while another one hosts a familiar collection of characters from the Codex.  Some incorporate processions of characters, while others incorporate familiar Serafinian themes, such as eggs or the “King Botto” character.  That Serafini brings signifiers of the world he has developed and illuminated over the course of his career only drives home the point that this isn’t a mere illustration job, but a cohabitation of his world and Renard’s world.

One thing still unclear to me is the limitation – 660 copies.  Everything I had read about the book initially noted 600 copies, although the colophon mentions 660 (600 numbered in standard numbers and 60 in Roman numerals).  I’m wondering if the gray clothbound copy pictured in my first post – with the stand-up leaves and the giant fox – is actually one of the 60 super-special editions, or if that one was just an advance photo before final production specifications had been finalized.  I haven’t seen a word about one of those 60 copies anywhere, with none showing up for sale on any website.  I emailed BUR about it, but aside from the language barrier, a specialized question like this doesn’t usually elicit much help from the publisher (anyone tried emailing Abbeville lately?).  So, like everything Serafini-related, there’s still a little mystery.

Finally, a few words about the idea of meaning in Serafini’s work.  It occurred to me while looking at this book that the meaning behind Serafini’s other work was becoming clearer in its deliberate unclarity.  In other words – the Codex, and to a lesser extent, the Pulcinellopedia, aggressively goad the reader into trying to make sense of them.  The Codex – with its invented language and encyclopedic scope – seems like it should be understood, which has led most readers at some point or another to try to figure it out.  Most people get hung up on deciphering the text, assuming that if the code were cracked, everything in the pictures would all of a sudden make perfect sense, and the strange machines and sex-people-alligatorization would no longer be so vexing.  Now, by contrast, we have Storie Naturali, an actual book by an actual author who wrote stories that people were actually able to read.  And alongside this totally decipherable text is a series of window’s into Serafini’s world, and guess what: it doesn’t make any more sense here than it did there.  Serafini’s world has always been one that operates with its own set of logic, and no rational-textual explanation is going to lay bare its inner workings in terms we can easily understand.  Just like each page of the Codex, each leaf in Storie Naturali needs to be taken on its own terms, even though we know exactly what Serafini’s project is, what he’s illustrating, why he’s doing it, etc.  There’s no romantic genesis myth about this book – he wasn’t holed up in an apartment furiously creating this book with no discernible objective – he was approached by a publisher and he did a job for which I’m assuming he got paid.  But the end result in both cases – an illumination of his world – isn’t something that conventional Western logic enables us to comprehend.

Those that can’t wait to decipher the Codex should take note that the cover of this book shows Serafini’s signature written in Serafinian (with the translation, “Luigi Serafini,” written beneath).  Start there guys, and let me know when you get to the epilogue page with the skeleton hand in the Codex.  In the meantime, I’m excited to be able to refute the scholar (I can’t remember her name, but she’s interviewed in Justin Taylor’s essay about the Codex) who says that the Codex will lose its power the instant it is translated.  The more you see into Serafini’s world, the more it becomes clear that its power comes from its uniquely Serafinian logical foundation, of which the text is merely an outgrowth, and not the only thing shrouding it from our own methods of comprehension.  Otherwise, as soon as you paired his illustrations with a “real” alphabet, all of that mystery would disappear – and in Storie Naturali, that very clearly is not the case.

One note: this blog doesn’t get many comments, but I’m especially curious what Serafini fans think of this new work, so I encourage you to leave a comment with your impressions of it.

Advertisements

Tardi is Really, Really, Really, Really Rad

The title pretty much says it all, but I’m still going to wax eloquent about Jacques Tardi for a while, since brevity fits me about as well as jeans with a 32″ waist (eg: LOL I’m fat).  As I’ve written elsewhere, although I’m totally obsessed with comics now, they haven’t been a lifelong obsession (with the exception of Tintin).  However, Tardi has been a part of my bookshelf for a long time, in the form of his incredible “collaborations” with Louis Ferdinand Celine.  To recap – Gallimard (major French publisher – think Penguin or Random House) has a comics imprint named Futuropolis, and in the late 80’s/early 90’s, Gallimard pulled classic texts from its canon and put out Gallimard/Futuropolis combo editions pairing the text up with extensive internal illustrations by well-known cartoonists.  They’re really unparalleled, essential editions for any comics fan, because the books are collaborations in the literal sense of the word, even though many of the original authors were dead at time the books were released.  Forget the traditional idea of an illustrated book (page after page of text, with an occasional full page plate, and some 1/4 page spot drawings sprinkled throughout).  Although the words in these editions are typeset rather than hand lettered (so no speech balloons), the text is fit around the illustrations – and not the other way around –  in a way that enables the illustrations to push the text in directions the original books never anticipated.  This isn’t “the classics – illustrated,” because the entire text is present, and the illustrations challenge and engage the text, instead of merely showing what happens on each page.  I can’t think of anything similar in American publishing (maybe it’s out there and some well-read comics enthusiast would like to suggest it in the comments?)… here we think it’s a great step forward when Penguin solicits covers for classic books from well-known cartoonists.  And hey, those books are cool, but they don’t offer anything for the comics fan beyond the cover.  By contrast, the Gallimard/Futuropolis editions are designed to look like Gallimard’s classic NRF series, with their cream-colored covers and red/black lettering, instead of a typical European comics album.  In other words, cartooning is folded into Gallimard’s literary canon instead of simply being window dressing for canonical texts.

Right, and so Tardi did three of these babies – all books by Celine.  When I discovered them for the first time, I didn’t know who Tardi was, but I was obsessed with Journey to the End of the Night, and the Tardi-illustrated version was a great way for me to read portions of the French text without getting too lost, thanks to the illustrations situating me along the way.  Of course, as I’ve written about earlier, it only took me flipping through the book a few times to realize Tardi’s masterful skill, and as I’ve become more familiar with his work over the years, it has become more and more clear that Tardi-Celine was a pairing that was too perfect to not happen.  I can’t think of another creator with the ability to capture the grotesque and gritty aspect of Celine’s writing in a way that also plays off of how Celine – with his pacing and rhythm, his slang, and his theatricality – creates a cartoon of the modern society he detests.  A strictly realist style wouldn’t fit Celine at all, but no one balances “cartoony”  imagery with an earth-shattering realism like Tardi.   (Sorry I don’t have a better word than “cartoony;” this is why I write my own blog and not for Comics Comics.)

So I came back from France in 2001 with the Gallimard/Futuropolis editions of Journey to the End of the Night and Death on Credit, and over time, they became two of my favorite books in my collection.  What never occurred to me, however, was that Tardi might have another body of work – you know, normal comics – that I should seek out.  And so I dove into the rabbit hole of graduate school and critical theory and all that, and then I dropped out and never felt like reading again, and then I started reading for fun, and then I discovered alternative comics, and since then I’ve been receiving a way more fun education that shows no sign of ending any time soon.  Cue Fantagraphics announcing last year that they were going to start releasing classic Tardi works in English in handsome hardcover editions.  I read the first two they released and saw the genius I saw in the Celine books in full bloom, with 100% of the page at its disposal.  (I should note that much of Tardi’s best work involves collaborations with other authors, although these are rendered as true comics, with the text as part of each panel, rather than typeset separately.)  While waiting for the third Fantagraphics release, it occurred to me that I could dig deeper into Tardi’s back-catalogue without the wait if I tried to read some of the books in French – even Le der des ders, a title whose translation completely escapes me (Google Translation helpfully provides “The Der of Ders”).

I went to my favorite site to buy French books – Chapitre.com – and spent some extra disposable income on 5 Tardi books, including Casse-Pipe, the much less common Gallimard/Futuropolis edition of Celine’s unfinished World War I novel.  Now, this was a find for me, since I’ve been looking for it for years… it’s available on used book sites, but usually costs in the $100 range, and the condition is often suspect.  But, and this is why I love Chapitre.com, it just happened to be available from a particular seller for 12 euros, even though the original edition has been out of print for years and is never found for so cheap (this isn’t uncommon with Chapitre – see my last post about the mysterious French website selling the Codex Seraphinianus for around $140).  One delayed FedEx shipment later, my Tardi collection has grown exponentially.   Now, I just need Fantagraphics to get him to appear at Comic-con so I can get these things signed, and I’ll be good to go.

So, like I said 950 words ago, the title says it all.  But in case you needed a little extra convincing, there’s the rest too.

My Favorite Books, Explained in a Verbose Manner Volume 4: Is That a Billboard? No, it’s Kramers Ergot 7

Many of my favorite books are ones that I’ve wanted to own for a long time, but struggled to find… others are unique items I stumbled upon unexpectedly and happily picked up… but this one doesn’t fit into either of those categories. I had seen Kramers Ergot 6 (an anthology of modern comics and comic art) in bookstores, although I never felt motivated enough to buy it, and I never had much interest in the series overall – not because I disliked it, more that I just hadn’t taken the time to digest it. With Kramers Ergot 7, I feel like I stepped in at the last mile of a marathon and cruised blissfully across the finish line… Not being knowledgeable about the series, I was unaware that this volume had been in the works since before #6 was even finished, and that message boards around the web had been buzzing with advance praise and advance scorn for years before the release date. I had no crescendo of anticipation as the release date approached, no high expectations, no preconceptions… I had about as much of a blank slate as one can have regarding a book with this much baggage.

Here’s how it started: as anyone who reads my blog knows (meaning, as two or three people know), I am a fan of graphic novels, and I also research book topics pretty obsessively. However, I haven’t really spent much time digging and digging in the world of comics and graphic novels. I will admit to having a limited knowledge of comics that, aside from some Bay Area mini-comics here or there, pretty much starts and ends at what Drawn and Quarterly or Fantagraphics is publishing… I hadn’t even heard of Buenaventura press (the publisher of Kramers Ergot 7) until I stumbled onto their webpage looking for this new Charles Burns book I had heard about. (For reference, that book is called Permagel, it’s fucking mind-blowing, and it is published by United Dead Artists in France. At 11” x 16”, it was the largest book in my collection for about two weeks, as you’ll soon see.)

So, about two weeks ago, I got an email blast from Drawn and Quarterly announcing a comics show in San Francisco (the Alternative Press Expo), where Chris Ware would be signing books. This caught my attention, since Ware is one of my favorite graphic novelists, and he doesn’t do signings very often. Then, a couple days after that, I got an email from Amazon suggesting a book I might like. I almost always ignore these emails, but I happened to open this one, and there was Amazon’s pre-order information for Kramers Ergot 7, a gigantic 16” x 21” hardcover comics anthology, featuring many of my favorite comic book artists (Chris Ware, Kevin Huizenga, Dan Clowes, Jaime Hernandez, etc). Gigantic, too, was the price: $125 retail (although significantly discounted by Amazon).

After I read Amazon’s little announcement for the book, I decided that I would probably get it at some point, just not right away. I checked out Buenaventura’s website to see what they had to say about the book, and of course, I saw their announcement about the Alternative Press Expo, where this book would be making its grand debut. To top it off, 16 of the artists featured in the book would be signing copies throughout the show (including Matt Groening, if you can believe that), AND the first 200 copies they sold would come with a limited edition (there goes Jordan’s Book Boner #1) letterpress print (Book Boner #2), numbered and signed by Sammy Harkham, the book’s editor, co-publisher, contributor, and cover artist.

Turns out, in a lot of the pre-release discussion of this book (and boy, was there a lot of that, given that information started leaking out about it in early 2007), the price has taken center stage. I think it’s a shame that so much attention has been paid to the price (with some people even claiming that the price is intentionally inflated so as to garner publicity), but I guess the easy counterargument to that is that if the book were priced more economically, no one would talk about it. In a nutshell, here’s how I feel about the price: anyone who knows anything about manufacturing knows that this book wasn’t cheap to make. Without having any insider information, I’d guess that the landed cost of this book, including the rolled-up cost of the R&D (which apparently included a trip to Singapore and Malaysia for a factory check) and contributor payments, is around $50-$60 per piece. This includes ultra-premium paper, hand-binding, a low print run, container shipping, and a shitload of book-board, plus payment for 50 artists… but it doesn’t include ongoing expenses like warehousing and the overhead required to market and sell the book. My educated guess would be that they’re breaking even or making a slim profit on books sold wholesale and making that up via direct sales off their website. Plus, they had to air-freight the first 200 advance copies to get them in time for APE, which probably tacked on at least $25 per book, if not more. The idea that anyone is getting rich off of this book at $125 retail is absurd if you stop to think about what went into it from a production standpoint.

Holding the book, it just bleeds quality. It is truly a deluxe production with no expense spared, and I’m glad that Buenaventura Press and Sammy Harkham had the guts and tenacity to put this book out. Regardless of how one feels about the book or the price or the size, the drive to see this project through every hurdle has to be admired. I honestly don’t know how it will do in the marketplace, but I sure am glad to own one… as a book collector, book design nut, and comics fan, this book really hits every base for me. When I showed up at APE and saw the stack of copies sitting at the end of Buenavetura’s table, it took me all of five seconds to decide I had to have one. Now, admittedly, I’m not the average book consumer (to me, $125 doesn’t seem like that much for a book in the first place, given some of the rare books I have purchased), and I spend more of my disposable income on books than is probably healthy. Of course, I don’t think there’s anything wrong at all with someone who doesn’t think this book (or any book, for that matter) is worth the money. Rather, I think that, in me, the publishers of this book found their absolute ideal customer: a comics nerd who spends stupid amounts of money on beautiful books. And that’s probably why the price is such a non-issue for me: as someone who feels targeted by the book and not deliberately left out in the cold, I don’t think there’s anything arrogant or presumptuous (or stupid or elitist or pretentious, or any of the other accusations that have been lobbed around) about pricing a book in this range.

So, out of all the hundreds of books I own, how does this one access that rarefied realm of my favorites? The size certainly helps, that’s for sure. According to Harkham, the genesis of the book came from the size of the Sunday comics pages from the early 20th century, something with which I don’t have an intimate familiarity or nostalgia for. When another of my favorite comic book artists, Joe Matt, told me about the similarly sized Gasoline Alley book, I didn’t rush out to get it, because I am not all that into the history of comics, and these old strips don’t seduce me the way modern comics do (this is a taste issue, like so many things I write about in this blog, so please don’t rake me over the coals for this viewpoint). But, the opportunity to read my favorite artists (as well as a whole host of fantastic artists whom I had never heard of) in this format is a real treat. Some of the strips, such as the ones by Dan Clowes or Jaime Hernandez simply pack the page full of similarly-sized panels (although the large title panel of Clowes’s strip is pretty powerful), which leads to the fairly unique reading experience of spending 5-10 minutes reading one page. (To jump back to the price issue really quickly: one of the criticisms is that the book is “only” 96 pages for $125… but shit, when one page here would be 6 pages in another book, the value increases pretty quickly.) Other strips, like Kevin Huizenga’s or Adrian Tomine’s feature standard-sized panels interspersed with very large panels that really let the pages breathe while showcasing the artists’ talent in a much more expansive format. Some artists abandon the panel format altogether and let the comic loose across the entire page. It brings me back to my grad school papers about the materiality of the text dictating the sensory experience (well, back then I called it the “phenomenological experience,” but let’s call a spade a spade)… I expected the size to be cool and unique, but I didn’t expect it to mediate my reading process so dramatically. To tie it back to an earlier post, it almost reminds me of my response to books typeset by Massin in that the presentation of the text so affects the content that the experience of reading this content cannot be separated from the book itself. My conclusion after actually reading the book is that the size isn’t just a gimmick or a publicity stunt by Harkham or a way to justify charging an arm and a leg for the book- it really does play a critical role in making the book what it is.

And let’s not forget that I toiled for an entire weekend to get this book signed by 16 different authors. It started with Kevin Huizenga, who graciously signed and sketched the book as well as the accompanying print (which was ingeniously designed by Harkham with several “pages” littering the ground – each one perfect for a signature and doodle). Other authors followed suit (some reluctantly), and by the end of the weekend, I had a limited edition print and a gigantic book signed with sketches by Chris Ware, Ted May, John Pham, Eric Haven, Jonathan Bennett, J. Bradley Johnson, Johnny Ryan, Matt Groening, Matt Furie, Souther Salazar, Sammy Harkham, Kevin Huizenga, Tim Hensley, Dan Clowes, Chris Cilla, and Jaime Hernandez. They were not at the signing table all at once, however, and so I carried this heavy book around the expo for two days (well, my girlfriend carried it some of the time too), returning periodically each time a new groups of authors sat down with pens in hand. Not that I would have rather bought the book already signed- seeing comic book artists sketching in person is one of my favorite things about collecting books –Chris Ware drawing Jimmy Corrigan or Matt Groening drawing Homer Simpson is too cool for words.

Now, I just hope that the book holds up over time. The boards are so heavy that I’m kind of worried that after a few years of being read, they’ll start to strain the spine joints and eventually detach… and I’m pretty sure it doesn’t come with a warranty. But again, that’s a risk that the publishers (and me as the buyer) were willing to take in order to bring this book to market (and for me to bring it home to my bookshelves). I view it as this enormous labor of love on all parts – from the publisher actually producing it, to the artists who struggled with an unfamiliar format, to the editor who had to pick and choose to produce a cogent anthology, and even to me getting all the signatures individually. It’s totally irreplaceable, to the point that even my ridiculous anal retentiveness about book condition has allowed me to overlook the bump to the top board that forever renders the book “Near Fine” and love it for what it is.

Pictures below:

Kramers 7 on my bookshelf, dwarfing some other fairly large books

Kramers 7 on my bookshelf, dwarfing some other fairly large books

The limited edition letterpress print

The limited edition letterpress print

Detail of Dan Clowes, Chris Ware, and Matt Groening signatures on the print

Detail of Dan Clowes, Chris Ware, and Matt Groening signatures on the print

Endpapers of the book, signed 16 times.

Endpapers of the book, signed 16 times.

Detail of sketches by Jaime Hernandez and Daniel Clowes

Detail of sketches by Jaime Hernandez and Daniel Clowes

Detail of sketches by Matt Furie, Jonathan Bennett, Souther Salazar, Chris Ware, Sammy Harkham, Johnny Ryan, and Matt Groening

Detail of sketches by Matt Furie, Jonathan Bennett, Souther Salazar, Chris Ware, Sammy Harkham, Johnny Ryan, and Matt Groening

Daniel Clowess page

Daniel Clowes's page

Kim Dietchs page

Kim Dietch's page

Tintin, Your Flipped up Tuft of Hair is the Least Curious Thing About You

tintin

I first heard of Tintin through my friend Trevor. Trevor was pale and chubby (I was chubbier, but less pale), and the kids at school called him “Albamster,” which was short for Albino Hamster. I was at Trevor’s house, and he showed me these comic books (it may be fair to call them graphic novels) starring Tintin, a teenage reporter who goes on adventures and solves various crimes and mysteries. I thought Tintin was really cool, so I started reading voraciously, and I still go back and read Tintin now and then, because the stories bring a comforting sort of entertainment. Not in the way that I can identify with any of the characters, but because the stories are so engaging in their own ridiculous way. When I was in France and feeling lost and alone, I bought French versions of Tintin…. since I knew the stories so well, they were really easy to read, and I had the added benefit of being able to read the not-imported-into-the-US volume entitled “Tintin au Congo,” in which Tintin goes to Africa and befirends the natives, who are drawn as hairless monkeys. At the end, they decide Tintin is their god and they build a totem pole with his face on top. It’s pretty much the most pro-colonialist thing I’ve ever read. At least Herge, Tintin’s creator, apologized about it later in his life. Anyway, this blog will chronicle the weird things about Tintin, some of which didn’t hit me until much, much later in my life. If this sounds boring to you, go reread one of my older blogs (because that will be more boring, and then this one will seem better).

1. Unlike the famous comic book heroes, Tintin is not a meek guy who transforms into a super hero. He’s completely comfortable with his place in life as the most talented reporter in history, and he’s totally undaunted by anyone bullying him around. He faces evil mobsters, evil Native Americans, evil Peruvian indigenous folks, evil millionaires, evil South American rebels, and more, and he never really gets scared. In times of dire darkness, he plots totally implausible ways to escape, and then he sees them through to fruition with a calm coolness. There is never any mention of Tintin’s parents, although he is only supposed to be around 15. Who were these people who raised a brilliant, unflappable son and then totally disappeared from his life? It’s the ultimate contrast to something like Spiderman, where you know about Peter Parker’s life when he’s not Spidey… Tintin is and has always been Tintin (“reporter,” as he is always identified, although he almost never does anything remotely close to writing or researching news stories), and you just need to accept that and keep reading.

2. Tintin’s companions are his dog Snowy, Captain Haddock (an alocoholic sailor who loses a considerable amount of weight over the course of the series), and Professor Calculus (called “Professor Sunflower” in the French version, he’s an insane professor who has a knack for developing devices that get him kidnapped by people). Tintin never seems lonely, and I suppose one reason is that his dog (who is also an alocholic and drinks at every opportunity) is always around. But really, does he have that much in common with a sea captain and a mad scientist? I suppose this is part of a larger perplexing issue, which is that Tintin relates to every person he meets with a polite detachment that suggests profound sadness underneath his surface. He never associates with anyone his age, and he has no problem engaging professors, heads of state, military generals, and other such figures in polite conversation.

3. Tintin never gets mad at his own destiny. Many of the books start with a declaration that he’s taking a vacation, at which point something un-vacationy happens, and he is thrust into a new, dangerous adventure (sometimes so complex that it requires two issues to resolve). Interestingly, he never seems to mind… the most irritated he gets is when he says something like, “Here we go again, Snowy!” But, he says it with a smile, not at all in a grumpy way. Honestly, I can’t really imagine what Tintin’s vacation would be like… probably just relating to people with polite detachment, but with less scheming and intrigue. Or maybe he’d finally crack.

4. In German, Tintin is called “Tim.” Why do they have to be so efficient?

5. Tintin is totally asexual. I don’t think he’s gay (although he may be), I just don’t think his adventures involve him with women at all (save for the elegant Italian opera singer Bianca Castafiore, who is more interested in the alcoholic sea captain than in Tintin). He sometimes befirends young boys, but it doesn’t seem like he does anything funny with them. I mean, the time he saves his friend Chang from the Yeti’s cave, he doesn’t even hug him when they reunite at the end. There is a novel about Tintin coming to terms with his sexual side (obviously not written by Herge), although I could never get into it. Great subject though. I wish at some point Tintin would meet a girl his age, just to see what would happen. Obviously, he would greet her with polite detachment and go about his scheming, but maybe then he’d notice her pert breasts and well-shaped behind and feel something he hadn’t previously felt. I guess the world may never know. But seriously, is there any 15-year old in the world who is never, not one time, occupied with the thought of sex? Oh Tintin, you curious boy.

6. Tintin doesn’t age, but his fashion evolves with the times. By the end of the series, he’s stopped tucking his calf-length pants into his socks and has donned bellbottoms, as was the fashion in the 70’s. The bellbottoms look weird at first… you can’t tell what’s different about him, and then you realize. Boy’s got some style. The kind of style you need to help a drunken guerilla army in South America kick the liquor and mobilize to overthrow the despotic General Tapioca, reclaiming Tapiocapolis for the people. Oh man, that’s a great adventure. At the end, they surprise General Tapioca at the big carnival by dressing up as the “Jolly Follies,” a group of dancers in interesting costumes. You never really learn what the real Jolly Follies were going to do, but in those costumes, you knew it was going to be good.

7. Tintin is supposed to live in the real world, yet he does things that are clearly impossible. In one adventure, he’s stranded in the jungle with only elephants as his company (elephants to whom he relates with polite detachment). To communicate with them, he picks up a tree branch and handily uses a pocketknife to carve it into a giant trumpet that he then uses to approximate the sound of elephant speech. (Aside from the impossibility of approximating elephant speech, there is also the obvious difficulty of hollowing out a 4-foot solid branch of wood using a two inch pocketknife.) The scene where he asks the elephant to spout water out of its trunk so he can shower under it has to be seen to be believed. Also, he showers in his boxers, presumably because Herge didn’t want to show nudity. But is there a bigger secret being hidden here? In another episode, he kills an ape, cuts off its head, and puts its skin on like a suit in order to blend in with the other apes. And it’s not supposed to be gross at all. Gross.

8. Tintin is totally unfazed by incredible violence. This is the part that most leads me to believe something dark is going on beneath his sheen of polite detachment. I mean, he still expresses emotion, but mostly it’s the emotion of being mad at bad guys for not respecting the law. But he has no problem doing things that cause immeasurable pain or death to people that are out to get him. Yeah, he’s acting in self-defense, but he doesn’t even flinch. He’s like Leon in The Professional, but that guy is a grizzled old French hitman who wears his rough life in the wrinkles on his face. Tintin is a fresh-faced teenager who watches people die without it really seeming to affect him at all. Perhaps the most bizarre instance of this happens when Tintin and the crew make the first manned journey to the moon, where they find water (see #7). On this extremely dangerous journey, a member of the crew helps some hijackers stow away in the rocket. After the hijackers are found out and then killed, Tintin and the Captain tie their accomplice in the hold and wonder how they will get back to Earth without enough oxygen. Wracked with guilt, the accomplice writes an apologetic suicide note and jumps out of the spaceship. Tintin is moved by this show of sacrifice, but not that much. And by the time the rocket lands, the guy is an afterthought. All I can say is that when I was 15, if I were on a mission to the moon and a member of my crew who had aided hijackers committed suicide by jumping out into space, just so I would have enough air to breathe to get back to Earth alive, I’m pretty sure I would have needed at least a little therapy afterward.

9. No one questions Tintin in any way, and everyone takes him completely seriously. If Tintin were a normal comic book, his main struggle would be getting the world to take him seriously. But when he meets the President of Peru and tells the President that he’s going to rescue Professor Calculus from the crazy People of the Sun, the President of Peru acts as if nothing at all bizarre is going on. (He even offers the Captain and Tintin a round of the Peruvian national liquor, which is far too strong for the Captain, who prefers Loch Lomond whiskey). Or, when Tintin faces the evil mobsters in Chicago, they never make any remarks to the effect of: “What, this guy’s just a KID, and he killed Mugsy?!” In fact, offing Tintin is their top priority, because the recognize how difficult he’s going to make their lives when he decides to come to Chicago to clean up the town and free it from Capone’s (yes, that Capone) iron grip.

10. Tintin gets gassed all the time. Seriously, it seems like at least once per adventure, he ends up in a closed room where he gets gassed.

11. There’s the hair. I’m going to sign off on this totally irrelevant and probably mind-numbingly boring blog by commenting on the hair, which just doesn’t make sense. Even if I understood everything else about Tintin, there’d still be the hair.

My Favorite Books, Explained in a Verbose Manner Vol. 3: Chagall in the Lines

I’m not much of a fan of Cubism… as art movements go, Cubism for me occupies the sphere of “I know what the artists were after intellectually, but the aesthetic experience of viewing this art is largely empty to me.” Still, there are a lot of artists who dabbled (or more) in Cubism that I really like, and Marc Chagall is chief among them. Unlike artists like Braque, Chagall doesn’t so much espouse or exemplify Cubism as much as he makes it his own and employs it as but one tactic in his depiction of his world. I can’t imagine Chagall’s world without hard-angled shapes, just as I can’t imagine it without emerald green-faced violinists.

When I was bookhunting in France, I simultaneously uncovered two additional sides of Chagall beyond what I had known from his paintings. In a fairly upscale (yet uncharacteristically friendly) bookstore near the river, my eye caught a plain white volume in a blue slipcase entitled, “Chagall: Poemes.” I pulled it out and gave it a look- it’s a collection of Chagall’s poems, along with a bunch of line-drawing illustrations. I bought it for around $40 (this was back when the Euro was worth $.70 on the dollar), since I was curious to sit down and read Chagall’s poetry. The poems are okay- there is a reason Chagall is known as a painter rather than a poet, but it’s always interesting to see how someone famous for expressing himself in a particular way does so in a different art form. (As an aside, this is why I like Bukowski’s art and drawings… as art, they do almost nothing for me (although as a comic book fan, his drawings and cartoons interest me more than his watercolors and oil paintings). In these types of cross-medium examinations, interesting patterns emerge, such as Bukowski’s uncompromisingly plain writing style juxtapozed (ha) with his bizarrely abstract oil paintings.) More engaging than Chagall’s poems, however, are his line drawings – one of the reasons I like Chagall so much is his vibrant use of color, so I was kind of surprised at first that I was so drawn to such simple drawings. However, Chagall has a striking talent for evoking extremely complex images and scenes (even emotions) with only a few well placed lines.

chagallI’m sure the decision to illustrate his book with line drawings was one of economy as much as it was an artistic choice, since creating an equivalent number of oil paintings probably would have demanded more effort both to produce and to publish than the monochrome illustrations he came up with. However, the drawings do complement poetry’s capacity to suggest a scene via small observations, and in this way, they fit with the text really well. Moreover, they suggest a confidence on the artist’s part to leave the reader to his/her own devices in fleshing out the scene. As a poet, I would later find via an interesting coincidence, Chagall didn’t have the same confidence to do more with less. Reading the book’s colophon page, I found that this was actually the second French edition of Chagall’s poems (originally written-but never published-in Russian), representing a revision of Moshe Lazar’s original French translations. My eyes lit up at the name… Moshe Lazar is a professor of Comparative Literature at the University of Southern California, and I had just taken a class on Jewish literature after the Holocaust with him the previous semester. When I returned to school the next fall, I stopped by his office and showed him the book.

Moshe Lazar is worth an entire story by himself- he has studied and published on a staggering array of topics, from early Talmudic studies to modernist Irish literature, and when I left school, he was working on translating an 11-volume medieval Spanish Biblical interpretation. He is fluent in 13 languages, survived a Belgian concentration camp as a 9-year old boy, and is one of the most approachable of the “rockstar” professors that I met. Like many professors, his office is a pile of paper, he forgets to hand back assignments, and his lectures are free-form discussions of the texts at hand (leading some students to wonder if he is descending into senility). Still, the last time I saw him, three years after graduating from USC, he remembered my name, my seminar paper on Beckett’s Malone Dies, and then asked me how graduate school at UC Irvine was going.

When I showed him the Chagall book, he got an excited look, like he hadn’t thought of Chagall or his poetry in years. Apparently, through academic excellence and the street cred that withstanding a starvation camp gets you, he had a lot of cachet among Jewish artists (after all, we’re talking about the guy who helped Elie Wiesel trim Night down from a 600+ page rant against the Holocaust and those who let it happen to a slim, devastating, perfect volume on what happens when humans lose sight of humanity), leading Chagall to get in touch with him about translating his poetry from Russian into French, where it was to be published. According to Lazar, Chagall was unhappy with the first round of translations, since the poems seemed flat and unpoetic. He asked Lazar to embellish on his stark lines, leading to a not-so-faithful-to-the-original first publication of the poems. The version I had had been corrected by another translator to strip away some of Lazar’s interventions, although whether or not the new translations represent a return to the original or yet another intervention by yet another translator is unclear.

Like any good literature student, I pull the book out from time to time intending to read the poems, but I always end up looking at the pictures. In a book full of hacked-up poetry, the black lines on the bright white pages evoke a purity that Chagall just couldn’t produce with words.

Books I Love that Aren’t Worth any Money: Volume 2

The Brandeis book fare was an annual bibliophile tradition in Chicago for many years. My earliest recollections of the fair are of boring, seemingly endless days spent as a little kid wandering from table to table under the giant white and yellow-striped tents with my dad. When I got older and started getting into book collecting myself, I took a trip there every year — it was always in the parking lot of the Old Orchard shopping mall, covering thousands of parking spaces, like some sort of circus for people that preferred old books over lions and stunts.

I don’t know who “Brandeis” was, or where their books came from, but I know a lot of them came from dead people. Because of the large Jewish population in the northern suburbs of Chicago, you were guaranteed to see hundreds of books by authors like Saul Bellow and Chaim Potok, as well as an enormous collection of books on Jewish history, famous Jewish figures, and the like. I bought a lot of these types of books, not really to collect, but more because I could: at Brandeis, prices were an afterthought for most books, scrawled on the front page in a red colored pencil. Paperbacks ranged from $.10 to $.25, and hardcovers from $.25 to around $3.00. They made their money on sheer volume, and the promise finding rare treasures mixed in with pocket paperbacks and 50 copies of The Adventures of Augie March drew booksellers from all over the Midwest. You could tell the people that had driven in just for the fair… (Sidebar: I haven’t really displayed my prejudice against booksellers in this blog, but I do have one. I hate 90% of them for being arrogant, ageist cranks who assume that, because I look like some dumb kid, I must not know anything whatsoever about rare books.) They would grab shopping carts at the front and tear through the aisles, tossing books they didn’t want onto the floor, elbowing their way up to the tables to paw through everything… Thinking back on the scene now reminds me of a passage I read in a book about a woman who, as a social experiment, takes a job at Wal-Mart to test the viability of working a minimum-wage job as a way to make a living. Anyway, she is initially shocked at how housewives enter the store and toss clothing on the floor, leave trash on the shelves, and generally make a mess of things… then she realizes that Wal-Mart is the one place where these women – often poor and overburdened with too many children – can shrug off the responsibility of straightening up, the one place where they can have someone else clean their mess for a change. It was the same with the booksellers. After a year of impeccably maintaining their shelves, and frowning disapprovingly at anyone who dared pick up a book off of said shelves to examine it, and dusting fingerprints off of each book after the customers left, they could finally act like bulls in a china shop. And so they descended on Brandeis, intent on acting like their idea of the asshole customers who came to their shops and left them in tatters.

I never found anything great and Brandeis, and in fact, I have donated a lot of the books I bought there. I did find a book of short stories by Balzac from 1920 that was wrapped in heavy paper by its original owner, causing the dustjacket to be in 100% new, unfaded condition. Although it’s not worth any money, to me, this is a fairly rare book, just because I haven’t often seen a book that is 80-90 years old and looks like it could be new off the shelf.

The one Brandeis treasure that I can claim is a giant, fat, thick, heavy hardcover book called The Evergreen Review Reader. I’ve seen it in paperback quite often (I think it was reprinted a bunch of times), but I’ve never seen the hardcover version in bookstores. Which isn’t to say that it’s rare by any stretch- copies about on Abebooks for around $50 and up… and those are in better condition than mine to boot. Still, something about stumbling upon the book sitting in a stack on a table was just too cool for me to really care that much about “upgrading” my copy to one in better condition. The dustjacket has some small tears, the pages are a little warped, and the book itself is a little warped, but you don’t go to Brandeis to find pristine beauties. You go to find books like this, seemingly impossibly priced at $7.00.

For some background: the Evergreen Review was a literary magazine in the US during the 50’s and 60’s (I don’t actually know when it stopped being printed, although it was during these decades that it was really prominent), and it published a huge range of literature: beat, french existentialist, whatever you want to call Samuel Beckett, Bukowski (although he’s not in this book), and tons, tons more. The reader is really a triumphant collection of Evergreen Review’s pages- it’s a really large, square volume with 800 pages, weighing around 10 lbs. Reading it is daunting- there’s so much literature crammed into the damn thing that a single two-page spread can take a half hour to digest. I look at it on my shelf (it’s hard to miss, since the width of the book gives the spine a lot of real estate to scream out the title), and I think of it as a literary bullion cube, a super-concentrated dose of global literature over a ten year period. For seven dollars? Talk about value!

Unfortunately for surly booksellers everywhere, Brandeis discontinued the book fair a couple years after I went to college. I had looked forward to flying back to Chicago and going to the fair with my dad, this time with both of us actually interested in the shockingly vast array of tables and piles of books, but I guess the fair got to be too much of a hassle to organize every year. It’s a shame, but really, how many Saul Bellow books can one book fair be expected to move every year?

Books I love that aren’t worth any money: Volume 1

I spent enough time in academia to be inundated with literary criticism about James Joyce’s Ulysses from all sides (feminist, linguistic, postcolonial, deconstructive, and on and on), but I never really got tired of the book or all the brouhaha surrounding it. I genuinely think that Ulysses merits that level of attention, because it affects the literature that follows it in such a foundational way. I’ve written about some authors (mainly Celine) who I think are important for various reasons, but Joyce’s achievement in Ulysses is singular in that he sets the stage for the modern novel in one fell swoop. He reinterprets so many tropes through his subjective and almost obsessively character-centered lens (the hero, the homeland, the son, the ideal mate, the oppressor/oppressed, and on and on) that everything from that point on was pretty much fair game. Other authors, of course, took stabs at doing this, and it’s not as if Joyce is the only author from that period with enduring influence, but I think it’s difficult to find any one author who had such a large effect on so many different aspects of literature.

And yet, I still hesitate to recommend Ulysses to friends who are curious about it. It’s not that it is too hard for non-academics to read (far from it)… with some effort, anyone can understand it, and there are books upon books explaining the plot for anyone who has trouble. It’s just that (and this is a decidedly non-academic point of view here, one which I am proud to have cultivated in the last few years), it’s not that good of a read. My favorite books are ones that totally engulf me, ones that display the full and raw power that literature can have (something that goes beyond simply having an engaging plot). And while Ulysses is an achievement of the highest order, and a work of art whose complexity is on a level almost completely untouched by other authors, I feel like the emotional power of the narrative gets buried under all the linguistic games. I love reading Ulysses for the artistic aspect of it, and I like thinking about the themes and characterizations, especially in terms of how they fit in to the history of Western literature, but the two don’t meet on the page, so to speak. The thematic force of the novel is a level removed, being reconstructed in my own head after reading articles and books and writing papers about it.

So, I have an ambivalent relationship with this book; it’s one of my favorites at the same time that I don’t really like it that much. An interesting sidebar about Ulysses, however (well, not a sidebar if you’re a First Amendment lawyer), is that it defined the test for obscenity in the US until Burroughs’s Naked Lunch necessitated a new test in the 60’s. Because of the raw subject matter (shitting! jerking off! nudity!), the book was outlawed in the US, although it eventually survived a court challenge (I can’t remember off the top of my head what the actual standard they used was, but it focused on the artistic merit of the book. The Burroughs test that came later had to relax this standard, since the stodgy court justices had a more difficult time finding artistic merit in places like Hassan’s Rumpus Room than they did in Joyce’s Dublin). Materially focused as I am, I really like early editions of Ulysses, because I feel like there’s a lot going on, from a historical perspective. Literary history is being made. US obscenity and censorship laws are being rewritten. The greatest novel of the next 86 years (at least according to the Modern Library) is sitting in a bookstore in a trade edition, for anyone to buy. Something about that really gets me.

Predictably, early editions of Ulysses aren’t cheap. I used to know the publishing history of it, but I’ve forgotten some of it. It was originally published in France in a paperback with turquoise covers, and those go for thousands of dollars. It made it to the US in a plain-looking hardcover with a dustjacket. Ulysses Since the original trades, there have been countless special editions by pretty much every publisher who ever published special editions of “great books”. I remember seeing an artist’s edition of the book in the Heritage Bookshop in LA (aka the Heritage Museum of Shit You’ll Never Be Able to Afford) that was a reproduction of the original paperback edition, only 5 times the size ($20,000). They also had a signed copy of the actual original edition, although they didn’t list the price for it. The one edition that I really want is the Limited Editions Club version that came out in the 30’s. I used to be big into collecting Limited Editions Club books when I first got into book collecting, but they seem kind of boring now (although that is probably due to my tastes in literature changing more than anything else), and Ulysses is the only one I still really want. It is illustrated (and signed) by Matisse, limited to 1500 copies. I have another, unrelated book illustrated with line drawings and sketches by Matisse, and I really like these types of illustrations when they’re done well. Chagall is another artist who I think pulls them off especially well. But, the kicker with Matisse’s illustrations of Joyce is that he didn’t illustrate Joyce’s novel. He sent back his sketches so quickly after he received the manuscript that the publishers asked him if he had even read the book… he hadn’t, and he had thought he was illustrating Homer’s Odyssey. So you get sketches of Odysseus slaying the cyclops while you read about Bloom circumnavigating Dublin.

Copies of that edition go for around $4000 to $10000 (unless you find one signed by Joyce as well), so that’s not high up on my priority list. However, (we’re finally getting to the title of this entry, after 1000 words) I did find a beat up copy of the first US edition at a bookstore in Chicago for $10 back when I was in college. Like I said, the first trade editions of Ulysses really intrigue me as historical objects, so let’s just say I was excited when I found it. Plus, the condition isn’t that bad… For $10, I’d expect the binding to be falling apart, pages torn, that type of stuff. This one is still fairly tight, although it has no dustjacket, and there are some pretty ugly stains to the cover, as well as holes in the cloth that expose the boards. But still… $10? Out of all my books (excluding those with sentimental value because they were given to me by someone close to me), this one is by far the most important “cheapie” on the shelf.

PS- where I said we were getting to the title after 1000 words… The word “words” is literally the 1000th word in this entry. I planned the whole thing like that, because I’m incredibly smart.