For many years historian David Irving (above) has been called a holocaust denier.  In 1996 he brought a libel suit against historian Deborah Lipstadt for calling him that — and lost.  So he is now officially a holocaust denier, at least in England.

It’s a fair verdict, depending on how you define holocaust denial.  Irving accepts that atrocities were perpetrated against Jews by the Nazi regime on a mass scale, but not on the sale accepted by most historians.  He also denies that the mass extermination of Jews was an official policy dictated by Hitler.


Irving contends that most deaths in concentration camps like Auschwitz  (about 90% of them by his reckoning) were from “natural causes” — overwork, hunger and epidemics, especially towards the end of the war when all of Germany was suffering from shortages of food and medicines.  He holds the Nazis criminally responsible for such deaths, given the conditions in the camps and the injustice of imprisoning people in them, but insists that only about 10% of those in the camps were deliberately executed by their captors.


He accepts that perhaps as many as one million Jews were deliberately executed in the conquered eastern territories by the Nazis, mostly by being lined up beside trenches and shot, but insists that these were ad hoc murders by local commanders overwhelmed by the number of Jewish refugees sent to them from Germany and other parts of the Greater Reich — not done on direct orders from Berlin.

Irving also argues for a kind of rough moral equivalence between Nazi atrocities and Allied atrocities.  He believes that about 10,000 prisoners were deliberately murdered at Auschwitz, for example — which most historians consider a preposterously low figure — and points out that many times that number of German civilians were incinerated in single fire-bombing raids on German cities like Dresden (below).


There’s a good deal of sophistry in Irving’s arguments.  The idea that a million people could be murdered and their bodies disposed of by Nazi functionaries, even in distant territories, without this being known in the highest circles in Berlin, without Hitler’s knowledge and at least tacit approval, violates common sense.


Irving’s contentions about the number of people who died in the camps, including the percentage of them that were deliberately murdered, have been vigorously contested by other historians.  The facts on which the debate hinges are arcane and exceedingly unpleasant, involving such issues as the amount of fuel needed to cremate a corpse versus the amount of fuel available to the camps for the purpose.

I have read more on this subject than I should have and confess that I find the technical details involved beyond my competence to evaluate and beyond my spirit to contemplate further.


Whatever you think of Irving’s arguments, it’s clear that there’s an ominous agenda behind his views of the holocaust — a desire to minimize the evil of the Nazis and emphasize the evil of the Allies — which is distasteful, to say the least.  But there’s an irony at the heart of Irving’s work.  Even the Nazi murders and atrocities Irving does accept based on his archival research add up to . . . a holocaust, one of the greatest collective crimes ever perpetrated by a “civilized” nation, one that’s hardly mitigated by any atrocities that may have been perpetrated by those at war with Nazi Germany.

It’s an irony that seems to be totally lost on Irving as he goes about his smug revisionism, and speaks to his moral failings as a man.  Only one or two million Jewish deaths can be attributed to the Nazis, he argues, not six.  Only one or two million?  You have to wonder how a man who thinks in terms like that can sleep at night.



We tend to think that the modern genre of Western fiction began with Owen Wister’s The Virginian, from 1902 — and there’s some truth in the idea.  The book was tremendously popular, a publishing phenomenon, and almost single-handedly created a market for novels cast in the same mold.  It was a market that, within ten years, the prolific Zane Grey would exploit and expand dramatically.

The Virginian distinguished itself from the dime-novel and lurid stage-play Westerns that had preceded it by its literary qualities — it was a Western that respectable grown-ups could read without embarrassment.  Hemingway was a fan of Wister’s work, Wister a fan of Hemingway’s — and they eventually became friends.


The story of The Virginian was skillfully told — the book is still a pretty good read today — and it introduced themes, incidents and character-types that have echoed down through Western fiction ever since, right up to Lonesome Dove.  It placed the cowboy or lone gunman at the heart of the Western genre and established his conflict with or taming by civilized society as enduring subjects.

But The Virginian didn’t come out of nowhere, and its lone-hand protagonist wasn’t the only defining element of Western frontier fiction.  Clarence King had previously published a popular series of novels about life on frontier Army posts, which would establish its own tradition within Western fiction, and in the Western films of John Ford and other Hollywood directors.


Romances like the popular Ramona, appealing strongly to female readers, had used Western settings before The Virginian — but such novels never established a distinct genre.  They were romances first and Westerns only secondarily.  There were many other kinds of novels set in the West, dealing with a variety of subjects, which didn’t lead directly into the Western genre.

In How the West Was Written, Vol. 1, which covers the years from 1880 to 1906, Ron Scheer offers a lucid and useful survey of American frontier fiction of all types, giving a panoramic view of how the West was treated in novels of the time, in romances, adventures and ultimately in the archetypal, mythic narratives that came to constitute the Western genre as we think of it today.

Scheer’s book is extremely well written, perceptive, illuminating and important.  A second volume covering the years 1907 to 1915, has just been published, and I’m really looking forward to it.  You can find both books here.



I’ve just finished reading David Irving’s 600-page biography of Joseph Goebbels.  It’s riveting and sickening in equal measures.  Personally, Goebbels was a peculiar little fellow.  As a man, he was a loser — a mediocre dabbler in literature, an unattractive and insecure suitor of women — and he knew it . . . but he also had a kind of genius, and he knew that, too.  The genius allowed him to enact a colossal revenge on the world for his shortcomings — it also led him to spend his last days in Hitler’s Berlin bunker like a rat in a hole and die grotesquely with his wife just outside the bunker after they had murdered their children.


Irving’s book doesn’t mitigate Goebbels’s vileness in any way — you get a sense that he may even have exaggerated it in places for the purpose of making Hitler look good by comparison.  (Irving has a scurrilous tendency to want to show that Hitler wasn’t as bad as history has painted him.)


A corrective to Irving’s bias is his prodigious research into the WWII archives and his disposition to show off the results in epic detail.  It’s the accumulation of facts, minor and major, that makes the book so fascinating — you get a real sense of what the Nazi movement was like as seen from inside it.  It’s almost suffocating to spend so much time with that aggregation of scoundrels and psychopaths, but it’s undeniably illuminating.


The foundation for any Goebbels biography are the man’s diaries, which are extensive and detailed.  (Irving was the first outside researcher to have access to numerous volumes of them once thought lost which were discovered in Soviet archives.)  Keeping diaries is not always a sign of self-knowledge or self-awareness — Irving is shrewd enough to realize that Goebbels’s diaries are full of exaggerations, lacunae and misconstructions designed to indulge his ego and self-pity, and also to realize that this private dishonesty is in itself one key to Goebbels’s twisted psyche.


I can’t really recommend the book to anyone who doesn’t have a consuming interest in WWII — it’s far too unpleasant for recreational reading — but for those who do, it’s essential.


It’s hard to disagree with any of this.  Paul’s attack on Obamacare is problematic, because he doesn’t offer a practical alternative — no Republican ever has — but this line should warm the heart of any progressive . . . “I say, we will not cut one penny from the safety net until we’ve cut every penny from corporate welfare.”



Obama’s State Of the Union speech tonight was curious.  It laid out a series of progressive initiatives that have absolutely no chance of being taken up by the current Republican Congress in the next two years.

So who was he talking to?

I got a funny feeling that he was starting off the debates for the 2016 Presidential race, and starting them off with an implicit endorsement of Elizabeth Warren.  He spoke in her voice for the middle class, on the issues that she has been championing, like reform of the student loan system.

Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee

I think his executives orders about immigration were also about the 2016 race — creating a controversy designed to attract Latino voters to the Democratic Party in 2016, an opportunity for Republicans to shoot themselves in the foot with Latino voters.

This is just a hunch, but I think Obama is going to use his last vestiges of power to try and subvert Hillary Clinton’s run for the Presidency and put Warren in the White House.

Obama has been a bad President but he’s a genius when it comes to Presidential politics.  I think he’s got one more unlikely ambition in mind in that realm — the destruction of Hillary and the elevation of Elizabeth.

You heard it here first.



Magnificent is the word that comes to mind when describing Winsor McCay’s comic strip panels.  He created impeccably detailed images with great depth recording wildly imaginative visions of a fantasy world as delightful and transporting as any in the history of art.

As a strip, Little Nemo is whimsical rather than funny.  The action takes place within the individual panels, not in their sequences — the visual storytelling is thus not dynamic in the cinematic style of most great comic strips.  For the most part we move from panel to panel as through they were linked by cinematic dissolves from one tableau to the next — but the tableaux can take your breath away.


They work as renditions of seductive dream spaces, that invite you to enter them physically, and also as graphic designs of great sophistication and elegance.  Their aesthetic appeal is inexhaustible, even if you prefer strips with more narrative momentum.

They need to be seen in large-scale reproductions in order to be fully appreciated and relished.  (The scans reproduced here don’t even begin to do them justice.)  Fortunately Sunday Press Books has published two of its gargantuan volumes presenting selections of the Sunday strips in the size of actual newspaper pages, as they first appeared, and Taschen Books has published a somewhat smaller but still enormous single volume collecting all the Sunday pages.

Together they document one of the supreme achievements of visual art in America.

Click on the images to enlarge.



Dick Tracy is a hard comic strip to love but an easy one to get addicted to.  Its author Chester Gould was attracted to the grotesque, an attraction he indulged more and more outrageously as the strip progressed through the decades.


Tracy had a faintly grotesque look from the beginning — he was a hard edged caricature of a tough police detective — even though the characters around him looked relatively normal.  The hard edges signified a relentless hatred of criminals and also a fierce independence — he always did things his way and rarely let his fellow cops in on his investigative stratagems.


There’s something grimly fascinating about him and about the dark underworlds he has to penetrate in order to solve his cases.  The strip started out as a fairly conventional police procedural with an unconventional protagonist.  It would eventually become stranger, with fantastical villains and plots.  It was always lurid, to one degree or another, and that constitutes its vaguely perverse charm.



Popeye the sailor man first appeared as a secondary character ten years into the run of E. C. Segar’s comic strip Thimble Theatre, which offered up parodies of dumb Hollywood movies.  Almost instantly, however, he took over the strip.  Violent, indestructible and bound by his own code of rough honor, he was irascible but dependable — the perfect protagonist for the wacky adventure strip Thimble Theatre turned into.


The strip featured surreal and whimsical fantasy elements and regular episodes of wild anarchic action, with Popeye inevitably having to beat the bejesus out of some villain or other.

The whole thing is eccentric, sui generis — and one of the most inventive and entertaining of all comic strips.  Popeye got toned down as a character in the animated cartoons he eventually starred in, and in the incarnations of the comic strip after Segar’s untimely death at the age of 43.  The character created by Segar remains a true American original, though — a brawling pigheaded palooka with a heart of gold.



As Drawn and Quarterly Press continues its reprinting of all the Gasoline Alley daily strips, other publishers offer collections of Frank King’s remarkable Sunday pages.

Sunday Press Books has published Sundays With Walt and Skeezix, one of its gargantuan and beautifully produced volumes reprinting a selection of the Sunday pages in their original size.  It’s a book every lover of the funny papers should own.  I wrote about it here — Unspeakably Cool.


More recently Dark Horse Books has started a series that will eventually reprint all the Sunday pages in chronological order.  Slightly smaller than the Sunday Press volume, but still generously sized, these books are also a must for fans of Frank King, Gasoline Alley and the American comic strip.