ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA

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One shouldn’t get too fancy about the meaning of this play by Shakespeare.  It is not a subtle philosophical meditation on human existence.  It is, instead, a rather simple and brutal drama based on the idea that human existence is a preposterous puppet play, that pomp and glory are strictly theatrical phenomena, and that sex is the only thing that matters.

The tragedy of the play is cheap melodrama, the philosophy is dime-store nihilism — but the poetry . . . the sublime poetry of the play is pure eroticism.  It creates its friction, it achieves its climax . . . and it echoes forever through the ages.

HOW THE WEST WAS WRITTEN

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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.

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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.

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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.

JOSEPH GOEBBELS

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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.

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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.)

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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.

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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.

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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.

THE FUNNY PAPERS: LITTLE NEMO

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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.

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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.

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THE FUNNY PAPERS: DICK TRACY

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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.

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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.

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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.

THE FUNNY PAPERS: GASOLINE ALLEY ON SUNDAY

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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.

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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.

THE FUNNY PAPERS: PEANUTS ON SUNDAY

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If you’re a fan of Peanuts but don’t feel the need to own every single Peanuts strip ever published — which Fantgraphics Books is in the process of reprinting in multiple volumes — Fantagraphics offers an attractive alternative.  They’re also issuing collections of all the Sunday strips in color, in large-format editions.  (Their Complete Peanuts volumes reproduce the Sunday strips in a smaller format and in black-and-white.)

They’re delightful books and probably offer more than enough Peanuts for most people.

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THE FUNNY PAPERS: KRAZY KAT

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Many people consider this series the pinnacle of comic strip art, and it’s hard to argue with the proposition.  George Herriman had a distinctive and brilliant visual style — the lines of his drawings are alive with an electric energy you find only in the work of the greatest graphic artists, from Rembrandt to Callot to Steinberg..

Herriman created a world based on the landscapes of the American Southwest, often referencing the area in and around around Monument Valley, and sometimes distorting its unusual natural features into purely abstract forms.  (Cartoonists and painters discovered Monument Valley long before John Ford turned it into an iconic setting for Western movies.)

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In Herriman’s dreamlike Southwest he conjured up a kind of mythic love triangle between three anthropomorphized animals — Krazy, a cat, Ignatz, a mouse, and Officer Pupp, a dog.  Krazy loves Ignatz, Ignatz cares only for bashing Krazy with bricks (which Krazy insists on seeing as a sign of affection), and Pupp lives only to protect the innocent Krazy and bring Ignatz to justice.

The dynamics of the triangle never change – they’re played out in endless variations over decades, as other anthropomorphized animals in the community look on, pursuing their own quirky business on the fringes of the central drama.

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It’s all very strange, and wonderful.  Motives are never quite spelled out — it isn’t even clear if Krazy is male or female.  He or she is sweetly philosophical, in an optimistic vein, about everything that happens.  Ignatz’s unwavering determination to hit Krazy with bricks takes on a kind of heroic dimension, and Pupp’s admirable but hopeless pursuit of justice becomes comical, almost pathetic.

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This is just the way life is, Herriman seems to be saying — no use trying to judge it or to fix it.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the strip was never terribly popular.  William Randolph Hearst admired it, though, considered it an adornment to his newspapers and insisted that they keep running it year after year.  It was undoubtedly his greatest contribution to American culture.

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Fantagraphics Books has published the complete run of the full-page strips, in black and white, in multiple volumes, as well as a collection of the panoramic daily strips from the 1920s.  Sunday Press has published a fabulous over-sized collection of the Sunday strips in color.  They’re all worth owning and revisiting often.

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THE FUNNY PAPERS: CAPTAIN EASY, SOLDIER OF FORTUNE

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Roy Crane pioneered the action-adventure comic strip with Wash Tubbs.  The character Tubbs started out as bumbling grocery store clerk but Crane decided he didn’t like the gag-a-day format and started sending Tubbs off on protracted adventures.  Captain Easy, soldier of fortune, a secondary character in the strip, was better suited to this format and Crane developed a new Sunday strip centered around him.

These Sunday strips have been reprinted by Fantagraphics Books, well reproduced in four large-format books.  Crane’s drawing style is just serviceable and his adventure tales a bit bland and formulaic at times, but it’s a genial strip, fairly diverting and important historically.

Worth a look, especially in the gorgeous Fantagraphics reprint editions.

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THE FUNNY PAPERS: POGO

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Complete runs of most of the great strips from the Golden Age of American comics have been or are being issued in excellent editions by the likes of Fantagraphics Books, IDW Publishing and Sunday Press Books.  I’m a collector of many of these reprint series, working my way through them with great pleasure.  Here’s a report on my progress through Pogo:

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Like Charles Schulz’s Peanuts, Walt Kelly’s comic strip Pogo got off to a slow start.  It creates a world located in the Okefenokee Swamp peopled by anthropomorphized swamp critters.  The episodes involve a laconic backwoods sort of humor that isn’t always terribly funny or insightful.  It’s just pleasant, in an off-hand way, though the drawing is consistently impressive.  I never read the strip with much attention when it was first appearing but I’m told it moved eventually into a mode of social and political satire that was penetrating.

We shall see.

THE FUNNY PAPERS: SICK, SICK, SICK

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Between 1956 and 1966, Jules Feiffer drew a satirical comic strip (initially called Sick, Sick, Sick) for The Village Voice.  All the strips have been reprinted in a volume titled The Explainers, which I’m working my way through.  I read a lot of them originally in the 60s, when they started to be collected in paperback editions.

Reading them today, I’m struck by how relevant they remain.  The specific cultural references have dated, but the issues — unpopular wars, political hypocrisy, insufferable hipsterism, manic consumerism and discombobulated gender relations — are depressingly au courant.

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They chart the Age Of Anxiety as it transformed into the Age Of Hysteria, neither all that different from the current Age Of Hysterical Anxiety.  Their wit seems as sharp as ever — not always the case with satire as it ages — and their insights as acute.

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THE FUNNY PAPERS: THE BEAUTY SUPPLY DISTRICT

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Ben Katchor is one of the truly great modern comic strip artists.  He has a quirky drawing style, influenced a bit by the work of Ben Shahn, and quirky obsessions.  Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer is a Katchor strip that appears in The Forward and other publications.  Some of the strips are collected in The Beauty Supply District, a book I’m reading now.

They’re set in an imaginary New York that resembles sections of the real New York as it once was, vestiges of which remain — clusters of small-time manufacturers, retailers and wholesalers of modest industrial products and novelties.

When I first moved to New York in the 1970s I lived on a street in Chelsea which housed many such establishments — a maker of flags, a maker of coat-hangers, a maker of trophies.  They’re all gone from my old neighborhood now, but they live on in Katchor’s strips, along with the eccentric salesmen who used to hawk such goods, the local cafes and delis that served the owners and employees of such firms.

They become in Katchor’s strips a kind of self-enclosed universe of desperate hustle and  baffled ambition and weary resignation.  It’s a universe that seems to know it’s doomed but carries on regardless.  Today’s New Yorkers are dining in upscale restaurants that once housed cheap novelty display rooms, living in wildly expensive lofts where flags were once sewn.  Katchor’s world is populated by the characters whose ghosts must still haunt such places.

THE FUNNY PAPERS: PEANUTS

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Complete runs of most of the great strips from the Golden Age of American comics have been or are being issued in excellent editions by the likes of Fantagraphics Books, IDW Publishing and Sunday Press Books.  I’m a collector of many of these reprint series, working my way through them with great pleasure.  Here’s a report on my progress through The Complete Peanuts:

I’m in early stages with this strip, in the middle of 1953.  The tone of the strip at this point, wry and genial, is still a bit bland.  The center of the strip, Charlie Brown, has taken full shape as the good-natured but anxiety-ridden everyman he will remain, but the characters around him have yet to coalesce into iconic figures, though Snoopy is closing in on iconic status.

Charles Schulz, Brown’s creator, still seems to see the strip as a series of observations on childhood, not on Life Itself — in short, the universe of the strip has not yet become mythic.  But it’s getting there.

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