Archive for the '(limited edition 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.

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Critical Massin and Other Observations about Book Collecting

This is an essay about random connections that pop up when I start really digging in and researching books. These connections are what make book collecting so great: it’s not just finding a book you want, buying it, and then staring at it occasionally as it sits on your shelf. It’s about realizing that a book you’ve wanted for years is only the tip of the iceberg, and that there are tons of interesting tendrils hanging off of that book, dipping into the vast ocean of everything else that’s ever been published… and about finding that things you’ve never known about aren’t actually that far removed from books you’ve had for years.

This particular adventure started, as it often does, with regret; the one that got away, the book with the pretty face that I always thought I’d see again but never did. When I lived in France, I bought as many cool French books as I could, constrained by my college-life means, but helped by the weakness of the Franc before the transition to the Euro and the strength of the dollar before the transition to GWBush. Still, there are some books that I never got around to buying, and others that I visited over and over again in rare bookstores but knew I’d never be able to afford. Two particular books come to mind: the NRF publication of Raymond Queneau’s Cent Mille Millards de Poèmes and Une Version Inédite du Premier Chapitre de Voyage au Bout de la Nuit de L.-F. Céline. And of course, these books are connected by more than just being sites of regret in my book collecting past.

First the Queneau: he was a mathematician in addition to being a writer and poet, and he is probably most famous for co-founding the literary workshop “Oulipo” (the workshop of potential literature) and writing Zazie dans le Métro, a novel about labor strikes, trains, and transvestites. When I first heard about the Oulipo, it sounded like a bunch of pretentious wankery, until I realized how bizarrely fantastic its approach to literature is. The basic precept is that creativity can be focused and harnessed by applying specific, often mathematical constraints to the creative process (see for example, La Disparition by Georges Perec, an entire novel written without the letter “e”). There are a couple good books on Oulipo that can be had for fairly cheap that explain the concept much better than I can, but suffice it to say that a constraint generates “potential” literature that wouldn’t exist if the creative process were left to operate unfettered.

Cent Mille Millards de Poèmes is generally regarded to be the foundational text of the Oulipo: the potential here is derived from the constraint of the sonnet. Queneau wrote ten sonnets, each line of which interchanges syllabically with the same line in the nine other poems. Even more, the lines have the same general intonation and cadence, such that any one of them could be substituted in a different poem to create a new poem. The result, taking into account a 14-line sonnet is, as the title suggests, 100,000,000,000,000 poems, or, the longest work of poetry ever written. To facilitate the potential creation of all quadrillion of them, the NRF published an edition in which the 14 lines are cut into 14 separate strips, enabling the reader to generate sonnets at will. It was released in a limited edition of 2200 in 1961 and then reprinted fairly regularly. I came across it in bookstores a number of times, but I never bought it, favoring a couple other Queneau titles instead.

One of those titles, and probably my favorite book that I brought home from France, is NRF’s deluxe publication of Queneau’s Exercices de Style. Here, the idea is to tell the same banal story 99 different ways… On a hot day, a man with a long neck and a hat with a cord around it instead of a ribbon boards a bus, yells at another passenger for jostling him, and takes an open seat. Later, the narrator sees the same man in front of a train station talking to another man who points at a button on the first man’s coat. That Queneau was able to retell this story in 99 different voices, to me, speaks volumes about his genius as a writer. It surpasses a mere student’s exercise (to which its detractors have compared it) by its sheer inventiveness, and it does things with the French language the likes of which hadn’t been tried in a literary format since Céline and Journey to the End of the Night (there they are, connected again). In this particular edition, Queneau’s exercises are accompanied by typographical exercises by Massin and 45 visual interpretations by Jacques Carelman (a board game, a Rorschach test, a rebus, etc.), in a cornucopia of artistic output generated by this one little story.

As much as I like this book, and as many times as I’ve flipped through it, I had never really followed up on either Massin or Carelman until recently. It turns out that Massin is a legendary French typesetter and designer, having designed some of the most well-known series in French literary history (primarily the Gallimard Folio collection, which you’ve probably seen if you’ve ever seen a French book). I had no idea, until I picked up Phaidon’s handsomely published retrospective of his career at Moe’s a few months ago. Looking through the book and getting a handle on Massin’s incredible contribution to French literature in the 20th century stimulated my collector’s itch, and I decided to start looking up some of Massin’s more famous books… which I learned, of course, included Queneau’s Cent Mille Milliards de Poèmes. Also of interest was his rendition of Ionesco’s absurdist play La Cantatrice Chauve, in which he set out to make the type another character in the play, as well as his more recently published edition of Cocteau’s Les Mariés sur la Tour Eiffel, a culmination of over thirty years of effort. (The fact that this book took so long to produce has the added bonus of demonstrating the evolution of his technique, moving from text pasted down manually to digital layouts.) Take a look at the pictures at the bottom of this article to see what it really means for Massin to “typeset” another author’s work… It’s not just a mere decision of font; rather, he totally reinvents the text and creates a totally new reading experience in which the type on the page plays as much of a role to the reader as the words themselves. It turns out Massin also wrote a book, Lettre et Image, which is a survey of type’s role in culture from pre-history up through present day. It is a big, heavy book, and while I haven’t yet read it, the illustrations alone are an incomparable sourcebook for anyone interested in type (such as, oh I don’t know, someone who has recently started a small press). And, in the course of digging up these books, I learned that Cent Mille Milliards is still in print, so after 7 years, I finally own a copy.

However, all this Massin-mania had me looking at my copy of Exercices, wishing it were a first edition, that the binding were a little tighter, and that the boards didn’t have those little imperfections… and so I started digging, and I found out that this particular edition has some interesting variants. In its first state (published in 1961), it featured 33 (not 45) illustrations by Carelman, meaning the book I brought back from France was a revised edition, with additional and revised illustrations. Interestingly, both collections of illustrations are unique, with a good number of the original 33 not appearing in the revised edition. The first edition is printed on heavy, matte paper, and many of the illustrations are on fold-out panels, whereas the second edition is printed on thinner, glossy paper (such that, with the same amount of pages, it is about half as thick as the first edition), with two-page spreads rather than fold-out panels. While the second edition was never issued as a limited edition (to my knowledge), the first edition was split into 3 versions: numbers 1-150 contained an original woodcut illustration numbered and signed by Carelman, and they were housed in a box covered in shirt fabric, secured by a button. Numbers 152-10000 (evens) were published under the Club Francais du Livre imprint bound in green semi-hardcover boards, and numbers 151-9999 (odds) were published under the NRF imprint, with the same cover as the special edition sans the box. (Another Massin tangent: before working as the design director of Gallimard (the French publishing giant one of whose many imprints is the NRF), he cut his teeth working for the French book clubs, meaning that a Massin-typeset book published simultaneously by the NRF and the CFL really covered all the bases.) With impeccable timing, an affordable copy of the special edition showed up on eBay in VG condition but lacking the box (an Abebooks search found one copy in the box for a cool $840), and I put in the first and only bid on it. My Massin collection was growing like a bamboo shoot, and I was really excited to have a piece of art signed by Carelman, an artist who I liked very much.

The weekend the auction ended, I was in Chicago, and, of course, a trip to Chicago isn’t complete without a visit to the rare book room at Powell’s Chicago Bookstore. After perusing a while, I was about to leave empty handed when I spotted a couple cases behind the counter and asked if I could look through them. I reached for a nondescript white book in a black slipcase, simply because it looked interesting… I pulled the book out of the case and noticed it was covered with signatures, and my mind got about as far as, “Is this….???” before I opened it and realized that yes, it was in fact the elusive 100-copy limited edition of the Atlas Press’s Oulipo Compendium, the ultimate English-language resource for the Oulipo. This book had been on my radar for years, but the only way to get it is to order directly from the UK for around $400. This copy was much more reasonably priced, and, while still technically an irresponsible purchase, I jumped at the chance to grab this rarity, especially since it was more impressive in person (as books of this nature often are). The interior is the same, save for the addition of a colophon page, and the book is bound in plain white wrappers, rather than the pictorial wrappers of the trade edition. The real bonus is the dustjacket made from handmade Rives paper, stamped with Atlas Press’s symbols and signed by twenty-six members of the Oulipo (and its poetry and visual art offshoots, the Oupopo and Oupeinpo, respectively).

It shouldn’t have surprised me, looking through the section on the Oupeinpo, that Jacques Carelman was a founding member of the group, just as Queneau had been for the Oulipo. Their collaboration on Exercices suggests as much, and the laws of book collecting coincidences would seem to pre-ordain such a connection. After reading about Carelman’s contributions to the Oupeinpo, my attention turned to the dustjacket to see if I could decipher his signature among the European scrawls… I had to wait for the woodcut to arrive from France before I could confirm it, but yes, there it was on the back, and even reasonably legible. Two Carelman signatures acquired in one weekend… not bad for an amateur book collector, and all thanks to picking up that Massin retrospective that got the ball rolling.

Of course, this was not the finishing point. In the months after the Oulipo Compendium find, I continued to look into books by/about Massin, in order to gain as comprehensive a view as possible of his body of work. Without too much more digging, I found a two-volume pictorial catalog published in French by Librairie Nicaise in Paris. While the books were a little expensive for me to buy sight-unseen (although I was certainly tempted), the name jumped out at me. First: “librairie” in French means “bookstore,” not “library.” Bookstore catalogs are not especially rare, but these books were comprehensive retrospectives/reference books, not catalogs of items for sale. Why would a Parisian bookstore be in the business of publishing books, and of all the hundreds upon hundreds of bookstores in that city, what were the odds that it was a bookstore I had emailed two days prior about an unrelated matter?

Paris is full of a staggering number and variety of bookstores. Bookstores and places to eat – if I think back on my time wandering around Paris, almost my entire memory is composed of looking among the shelves at a bookstore or eating something. As for the variety, there are the booksellers selling everything from cheap paperbacks to rare items out of painted green stands that line the Seine, multi-story emporiums like Gibert-Jeune, corner shops, and more rare book dealers than you can count. The last type was of the most interest to me- there’s really nothing like them in the US. There are plenty of rare bookstores, but almost all of them have a section of cheap paperbacks or standard fiction books, with the real “A” items under glass or in a separate room entirely. The Parisian rare bookstores, on the other hand, house the types of collections you usually only see here in appointment-only dealers. Even getting in the stores can be a challenge- most of the doors are locked, requiring you to ring a bell and subject yourself to the studious gaze of the proprietor. More than one time, I was refused entry to the store, probably because I looked like I didn’t have any money (mostly true, anyway). But there was one store I could reliably count on to admit me- the Librairie Nicaise. This was my favorite bookstore anyway- instead of floor-to-ceiling shelves, it was organized more like a little art gallery or museum, with waist-high bookcases displaying unique and rare items on top of them. Down the center of the shop was a long table, and more than once the owner invited me to sit and take as much time as I needed to peruse whatever interested me that day.

Most of the books at the Librairie Nicaise were limited-edition fine press books housed in clamshell boxes. I often felt a little guilty opening box after box to see what was inside, wondering when I would finally wear out my welcome – especially as it became clear that I would never be able to afford anything there. During that time, I had three authors on my watch list: Queneau, Jacques Prevert, and Céline. One day, I asked the proprietor if he had anything by any of these three, and he showed me a volume of Céline that I would return to look upon multiple times before I finally moved back home. It was a private press volume – published by Balbec, about whom I haven’t been able to find any additional information whatsoever – housed in a gray cloth clamshell case. The book itself was unbound, consisting of signatures loosely laid into the box, printed letterpress on Rives paper. It was illustrated by Thomas Gosebruch, an artist who is about as mysterious to me as the publisher. The text is simply the first chapter of Céline’s Journey to the end of the Night (a piece of text that holds up surprisingly well by itself), although it is printed alongside the original text from Celine’s manuscript.

The original manuscript is what threw me – in all the reading I have done about Céline (who was a primary focus of mine in college as well as in graduate school), I have never uncovered another printing of the original manuscript. Céline dictated his books, rather than writing or typing them himself, and so the original manuscript represents the closest that this text ever was to Céline’s mouth. After all the time I have spent reading poststructuralists work to set the text free from its author figure, the idea of Céline sitting at a desk actually speaking the words that became Journey while a dactylographer dutifully records them is too neat for a romantic like me to discount. That this text is reproduced in one of the single most luxurious books I have ever held just makes it that much more incredible.

The problem was, the book was priced at about $400, which was more than I could ever imagine spending on a book back then. I thought about trying to save up for it, but I knew that I’d fail and just get frustrated, so I wrote it off as something I’d never end up owning. I actually said good-bye to it in my head when I visited the Librairie Nicaise the last time before I left France, and I all but forgot about it when my book collecting habits went on hiatus in my mid 20’s. It wasn’t until a few years ago that I started trying to find it again… at which point I realized that I didn’t remember any of the identifying details about it. Eventually, my frustration at not being able to find it converged with my desire to own it, and I decided to spend as much time as necessary finding it again.

I started on Add-all, a website that amalgamates the listings of 30-odd used book sites. I searched “Céline” and “toile grise” (meaning “gray cloth”), hoping I’d catch a mention of the clamshell box in one of the listings. Eventually, it popped up – limited to 100 copies, no wonder I had never seen it anywhere else. And, surprisingly, that one copy was the same one I had seen all those years ago back in Paris at the Librairie Nicaise. I sold off a few books and used the money to buy it off of ILAB, an antiquarian book site that lists a lot of European dealer catalogs. A few weeks went by, I didn’t hear anything, and my emails asking for order confirmation went unanswered. I finally worked up the nerve to place a call overseas, and in my best French and his best English, Mr. Librairie Nicaise told me that he couldn’t find the book, and thus, he couldn’t sell it to me. He said he was going to spend one more week looking and then cancel my order. After a week of not hearing anything further, I assumed the book wasn’t available. The one that got away, indeed.

Still, tying up all of the above with the Librairie Nicaise as the center, all neat and trim, isn’t quite accurate.  The whole point is that the connections spew forth such that there is no center at all, just points of interest that sometimes intersect unexpectedly, sometimes over and over again.

Note: the preceding theme will be continued in the upcoming entry: “Quelquechose in the Water: More Observations about Book Collecting.”

Pictures (please excuse the low photo quality – I’m a bad photographer using a worse camera, so hopefully you came here for the brilliant writing, rather than the photos):

Phaidons Massin book

Phaidon's Massin book

The cover of Massins rendition of Ionescos The Bald Soprano

The cover of Massin's rendition of Ionesco's The Bald Soprano

Interior spread from The Bald Soprano

Interior spread from The Bald Soprano

Interior spread from Letter & Image

Interior spread from Letter & Image

Another interior spread from Letter and Image

Another interior spread from Letter and Image

Cover of Massins rendition of Cocteaus Les Maries

Cover of Massin's rendition of Cocteau's Les Maries

Interior spread from Les Maries

Interior spread from Les Maries

Cover of Cent Milles Millards

Cover of Cent Milles Millards

The separated strips

The separated strips

The original and reissued deluxe editions of Exercices de Style

The original and reissued deluxe editions of Exercices de Style

The story, typeset as a telegram

The story, typeset as a telegram

Fold-out panel of Carelmans interpretation of the story as a board game

Fold-out panel of Carelman's interpretation of the story as a board game

Carelmans interpretation of the story as a Surrealist collage

Carelman's interpretation of the story as a Surrealist collage

Carelmans signed print - Danse Macabre

Carelman's signed print - "Danse Macabre"

Dustjacket of the deluxe Oulipo Compendium

Dustjacket of the deluxe Oulipo Compendium

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

Another trip to the well: An Update

Evidently, I’m not as dumb as I look. The “more common” edition of the Codex sold for $280… $20 MORE than the much more difficult-to-find first American edition I bought on eBay two nights ago. I will have a huge post about the Codex coming soon (I need to really let it ruminate… I’m going for 2000 words!), comparing all the different editions, with tons of details that no one cares about. But, suffice it to say for now, I can’t believe it sold for that much, especially to a French guy who could probably find it for its published price of 89 Euros at an art bookstore somewhere. (Or maybe it’s rarer than I think, and I’m just incredibly resourceful.) Anyway, I need to figure out what to do with the first-American edition before I buy another copy of the 2006 Codex- the cheapest copy on Abebooks is $650, which makes it the most valuable book in my collection (if you use the “cheapest copy on Abebooks” as a reliable measure of the value). Do I sell it? Sell other stuff to keep it? I’ll be up all night at this rate.

codex1Since I’m sure people only read this blog for the [book] porn pictures, here’s the title page of the American Codex (the only one in any edition that is illustrated)…

As for the Serafini book, it sold for $200 in about 5 hours… even better than the first copy I sold. I knew I was onto something with that. Although, of course I immediately bought another one to sell, and after all this gloating, I’m sure I’ll end up getting $40 for it.

And on to the Ryden stuff… I’m stuck waiting out the current state of the market before I try to sell my expensive items. I lost money on Quadratum, one of his microportfolios, and I haven’t tried to sell the Artist Proof yet (I took it to some bookstores, but they didn’t offer me enough for it). I still have a later-edition microportfolio and a signed first-edition of his book that I’m dealing with… so it might be a while. And once it’s gone, I’m going to have to find a new market niche to research. Do the 2 people that read this blog have any hot leads for me?

Carpet Bombing the FMR-ket

One of the interesting things about the used book market is how different channels operate seemingly independently of each other. On the one hand, you have the eBay channel, which changes in dynamic sometimes weekly, and on the other hand, there’s the retail/Abebooks channel that operates on its own logic. The lack of cross-talk here is really interesting to me, and it’s the main way I convinced myself I could make money at this little game. It started with a couple FMR books I sold for a profit at Moe’s Books in Berkeley… but first, as you must’ve expected from this blog, 2 long-winded levels of background.

FMR logoFirst, a little bit about FMR. The acronym stands for Franco Maria Ricci, the name of the publisher. Ricci famously describes getting his start in publishing after seeing a manual of typefaces by Giambattista Bodoni and having the same reaction that he assumes Stradivarius must’ve had after seeing a handcrafted violin for the first time: he knew immediately that he wanted to be a publisher. His books are really over the top luxury-wise, as is his magazine, the self-proclaimed Most Beautiful Magazine in the World. I first heard of FMR when I became interested in the Codex Seraphinianus, since Ricci “discovered” Serafini and was the first to publish his book. Through researching FMR’s “Signs of Man” series (dedicated to unknown or underappreciated artists), I decided to start collecting them. They are published in Italian, French, and 8 volumes in English… the ones that never made it into English are some of my favorites, including Zotl, a catalog of bizarre paintings of animals by an artist (Aloys Zotl) who was never formally trained and had no stylistic development whatsoever during his career. ZotlOr Fini Mundi, a collection of 18th-century paintings of the apocalypse with commentary by Borges. Typically, these books (many are still available new) go for $300-$400. All of them are bound in silk, many are in clamshell library cases, and the covers feature gold-stamped Bodoni type and pastedown color illustrations. They are printed on handmade Italian paper (all FMR books in the series except the Codex feature a distinctive light-blue tint), individually numbered (usually in editions of 2000-4000) and signed by Ricci.

Normally, these books would go for slightly less than their Abebooks prices when they showed up on eBay. $200-$300 was common for the English ones, although you’d often see really beat-up copies of some of them end up selling for $100 or so. Then (now we’re at the 2nd level of background), an interesting thing happened. In June, a woman in Michigan who was primarily a dealer of horse saddles bought an enormous stock of FMR books in an estate sale. And they (and by “they,” I mean the English FMR titles) just started showing up, over and over again. Demand stayed high for a really long time, and they were still selling for over $100 apiece well into the fall. But she just kept selling them and selling them. I’d get outbid at the last second with a high bid of $85, and then I’d win the book 3 weeks later for $60. I ended up buying a lot of them, because I thought their resale potential was high. Moe’s paid out $150 for a copy of Congress of the World by Borges that I got for $50. They planned to sell it for $450, which made it a great deal for both of us (although it’s still on their shelves right now, so I may have come out ahead there). I still have a few, because I like them, and I think that the price will go back up eventually. Maybe.

This brings me to the point of this blog: I watch the eBay market fluctuate independently of the retail market all the time. Things happen (like Porterhouse’s Ryden sale) that flood “rare” product on eBay, and prices go way down, and then that stock dries up, and prices come back up. For one reason or another, the same thing happened with Bukowski books last summer. But this FMR business is starting to spill over, due to the sheer volume of product released into the market. The seller has sold some pretty rare items, and those have fetched accordingly high prices, but she has a seemingly endless supply of the English FMR “Signs of Man” titles, as well as a few other random ones. It’s reached the point where everyone who wants one has one, but she’s still selling them, for less and less as time goes on. Now, books that popped up on Abebooks for $400 last summer are showing up from the same booksellers for $125. It has me wondering how long the market for the books is going to take to rebound, or if it ever will. Since I’m fairly new to the business side of this whole thing, I don’t really have any way to gauge it. A temporary glut will drop prices for a month or two, but what about a year-long assault on demand by oversupply? Prices on Abebooks don’t change very quickly, because they sit in a database that probably doesn’t get updated that often, so when they come down, I assume that they stay that way for a while. I’m wondering if in a year or two, the market will have flipped such that the books are actually going for more money on eBay than they’re listed on Abebooks. (You’d think this would be impossible that people would work to pay more for it on eBay than they could just snatch it up on an e-commerce site, but it happens all the time.)

What I find interesting about the FMR price assault is that, more than any other books I have in my collection, these books, at least from an aesthetic perspective, deserve their high prices. It’s not like a cheap paperback that just so happens to be really rare and gets its price that way- it’s clear that these books were not at all cheap to produce (Japanese silk, handmade paper, all the trimmings). Since the art reproductions can’t be printed directly on the paper, alCongressl of the illustrations are printed on glossy paper and “hand-tipped” into the books (how long this must’ve taken for each edition of 3000 is pretty staggering). You hold them- even smell them- and it’s clear that they’re expensive books. They’re designed to look luxurious on some rich couple’s $5000 coffee table. And the content is pretty good too. Ricci prided himself on pairing art monographs with interesting texts, and a lot of books have some neat literature in them. There’s the book of Tarot cards, which sounds dumb on the surface, until you learn that it’s actually a book of the oldest surviving deck of medieval Tarots, made back when Tarot was a parlor game, rather than a method of fortune-telling. Alongside the Tarot illustrations is a novella by Italo Calvino that creates mini-narratives based on the cards. Then there’s the book of paintings by Arcimboldo (the Spanish painter who painted heads made up of flowers or vegetables – composite heads, as they’re called), with an essay by Roland Barthes. (Even though I’m not in grad school anymore and don’t really read literary criticism, there’s something about Barthes that I still get a kick out of. No one can make something seem as interesting as Barthes… I never really cared one way or the other for Arcimboldo until I read Barthes’s essay on him, and now I think he’s incredible.) For Justine, I picked up a collection of photos of children by Lewis Carroll, accompanied by his letters to them (it’s very strange, to say the least).

Tarots

I bought a bunch of them at one point when the seller contacted me privately about a bulk purchase, and I managed to turn a good profit on them, although I’ve still got a couple left and I’ve exhausted the resources I have to sell them (which often happens when eBay is off limits). I guess I’ll just have to wait a few years and see if the prices ever recover from the flood.

Them Porterhouse folks don’t mess around

I’ve taken delivery on all my Mark Ryden inventory, and now I’m trying to move it (I like talking like a real bookseller… it’s fun). Auctions are going okay on eBay… I probably should have waited a year to sell all this stuff, but the interest on my credit card I’d accrue from carrying it all for a year would really eat into my profit margins; plus, I’m really impatient. Right now, I’m set to lose about $30 on Quadratum if I don’t get some bids, and I’m competing with quite a few other copies up on eBay right now. With that in mind, I’m holding onto the Meat Show microportfolio to see if I can exploit some other avenues of sale for it, since it really is more valuable than it’s trading for right now (although I suppose that’s all subjective).

One thing I can say however, is that Porterhouse makes some really, really fine editions of Ryden’s work (which I suppose is important, given that Ryden owns and operates Porterhouse). Here is a picture of the Meat Show portfolio- the box cover, the prints wrapped in vellum and sealed with the Porterhouse seal, and the colophon, printed in gold foil and black on vellum and signed by Ryden:

ryden

It’s small, and I guess you could argue that the cards themselves really are just postcards, the same as you see from tons of galleries advertising this or that exhibition, but they are printed on heavier, glossier stock than you normally see, and the reproduction quality is excellent. I’m really impressed with the quality of work here; it’s a shame I just can’t really afford to keep it at this point.

Normally, coffee stains on a book would depress the shit out of me

Today, I was in my favorite Oakland art gallery/art bookstore (www.rowanmorrison.com) to pick something up for Rubyred, when I found out that there is a new book out by LA-based artist Mel Kadel. This is ironic, because I was telling Rubyred this morning about how Mel Kadel is in that like-but-don’t-love category… individually, I love her work, but in bunches, it tends to run together. Then, I see the new book, and the “have to have it” alarm goes off in my head, and I buy it. Later, at home, I contemplate why this is (of course, I contemplate it later, after spending my money).

I decided that Kadel’s work lends itself better to books than walls. I’ve seen her exhibited at a gallery in San Francisco, and that is when I decided that I wasn’t as crazy about it as I thought I was. But looking through this new book, my tune sort of changed. Part of it is the book design- both of her books (Rough Cookie and Honey Pool) are self-published and handmade (they’re essentially deluxe chapbooks). rough cookieShe publishes them in editions of 100, and sometimes will issue 2nd editions if enough people beg her (my copy of Rough Cookie is a 2nd edition), and each one is signed. The covers are really nice deckle-edged paper with color screenprinting, and the interior is all color printed on paper that has been carefully stained with coffee. Mel does a lot of art on coffee stained paper, and I noticed in the new book that she has been doing more to incorporate the shape of the stains into the art itself. The staining gives the pages a really unique look (for one, they’re wavy and brown), but it really works in the context of her art. So, here is what I mean about her work “working” better in a book than on a wall: in the art gallery, her pieces are dispersed along the physical space of the wall, whereas in the book, they are condensed into a really powerful nugget of common themes and patterns. “Yeah, but isn’t that true of all art books?” To a point, yes… but my point with Kadel is that her work works best when you digest it all at once, in a short burst, where it, and not the surroundings, is the sole focus of your attention. Rather than walking from piece to piece, the space in between them mediated by the physical space of the gallery and the whiteness and sterility of the walls, I can digest all of her work from within the book, which itself becomes an artifact straight out of the world that she creates. In this way, the book becomes a sort of missive from the world in which her ever-present female character struggles, triumphs, hides, and lives, and it provides a deeper experience of her art than the gallery setting.

I don’t feel this way about all art… I can stare at a Joe Vaux painting, for example, on a wall and get lost in it without wishing that I could digest it in book form. However, there is an important distinction here between an art book and an artist book. A glossy hardcover Mel Kadel book probably wouldn’t have the same effect described above, and so maybe the point I’ve been trying to make all along is that my “have to have it” alarm went off because of how much more I enjoy art when it is presented in the form of an artist book.  A good example here is Richard Coleman, an artist that, to me, is somewhat similar to Kadel in that there is (at leasrough cookie2t in my untrained eyes) an influence by Edward Gorey; also, Coleman, like Kadel, tends to paint in very static subject matter. (Another caveat: this isn’t the same as saying that all their paintings look the same. It is a more subjective determination that all of their paintings have the same aesthetic effect on me. Plus, since it’s subjective, you can’t get mad at me and yell at me for not finding the unique value in each and every different piece by these artists). Anyway, Gingko Press published a beautiful book of Coleman’s work that I was never really able to pull the trigger and buy (it’s only $40), because I never felt I would really look at it all that much. However, if Ckadel3oleman himself had designed and handmade a small book of his art, I think I would appreciate it on a much higher level. Clearly, I love books and that adds to my enjoyment of art, but it’s more my love of the book object as an art form… especially when there’s synergy between the book object and the art presented within, and ESPECIALLY when that synergy pays off as well as it does in Kadel’s two books.

Note: there’s a high probability that this blog makes no sense, has logical inconsistency, or demonstrates that I have no eye for fine art. If so, that sucks, I guess.