Sunday, October 29, 2006

Pride of Baghdad

Currently reading: "Tropic of Cancer" by Henry Miller, "The Ethical Slut" by Dossie Easton and Catherine Liszt, and "The Odyssey" by Homer (yes. still.)
Next up: "Lost Girls" by Alan Moore and "Ulysses" by James Joyce

I'm a sucker for three things, it seems: Brian K. Vaughan, political graphic novels, and animals. I recently picked up a beautiful looking graphic novel I happened upon in a comic book store called "Pride of Baghdad" written by Brian K. Vaughan (writer of Ex Machina, Y: The Last Man, and The Escapists). Its cover has a beautiful, close-up drawing of a lion's face, and Vaughan's name graces the top. When I read the synopsis on the back - a "based on true events" telling of what the streets of Baghdad were like during the beginning of our war with Iraq from the point of view of a pride of lions that escaped the Baghdad Zoo - I thought, "Brian Vaughan? ANIMALS?! POLITICS?! This book has EVERYTHING!"

Overall, I was not disappointed. This pride of lions escaping a zoo proved an effective literary parallel to an Iraqi citizenry thrust into a new world without a dictator. Vaughn uses this conceit to great effect as we watch this lion family hunt for food and fight for survival in the midst of shelling, rubble, and ruin. Important questions of what freedom means and what price one should be willing to pay for it are addressed as the lions fight amongst themselves and interact with other species. Human beings are relegated to the background, as dead bodies the lions must decide to eat or not, or as American soldiers.

And here, I will say that Vaughan's storytelling would be nothing without Niko Henrichon's stunning artwork. I've said this before: being a writer myself, I tend to notice the writing in comics more than the art. However, sometimes I'll come across an artist who is so obviously an active part of the storytelling that I can't ignore it. From the multi-faceted emotions on the animals' faces throughout the story, to the gut-wrenching, bullet-riddled conclusion, Henrichon's art ends up telling most of the tale, and tells it beautifully.

The one problem I had with Pride of Baghdad is something that is difficult for anyone who has chosen to tell a story through animals. There were certain plot points in the story, or bits of dialogue, that sounded and felt too human for me. While I understand that they are being used to represent the Iraqis, a point is also made in the story (by an old turtle who has seen it all) about how human beings destroy everything. I wonder how the story would've been different had the animals been allowed to be animals. What would an American invasion had looked like from the point of view of total innocence - not only innocence, but creatures who are free of human emotions like anger, jealousy....and pride?
Still, Pride of Baghdad was a satisfying, emotional read, cemented Brian K. Vaughan as one of my favorite writers, and introduced me to a wonderful artistic talent in Niko Henrichson.
Pride of Baghdad - Good Times!

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Henry and June - from A Journal of Love (1931-32)

Currently reading: "The Odyssey" by Homer, and "Tropic of Cancer" by Henry Miller
Next up: ??? :)

How does one review published diaries? According to literary merit? Though Anais Nin is a beautiful, insightful writer, I feel strange talking about her "writing style" when discussing a section of her journal. What I will talk about instead is the way that books often come into your life at a time when you need them. It happened to me once with 1984 (when I needed to crystalize exactly why writing was so important to me), then again with Everything is Illuminated (when I needed to be encouraged back into writing after I'd stopped for a long time).
I was inspired to walk into a bookstore and purchase Henry and June a week or two ago, because I've been doing a lot of self-examination recently, and having heard a lot about Anais Nin I thought her journals would be the best thing to accompany me on the beginning of my journey. Originally, I'd wanted a full volume of her journals, but everything was sold out, so I ended up buying Henry and June...and since I'd never read her before, I thought it would be a good introduction.
I am so grateful that this book came into my life when it did. All I knew about Nin before reading it had to do with the sex she had. People love to sensationalize, and so when one hears the name, Anais Nin, one automatically thinks "sexual awakening", "deviance", "erotica." What amazed me was how much we had in common outside of that - the insecurities, the way in which we see men and the world, the positive and negative aspects of a Catholic upbringing, and most importantly: the ongoing battle between loving submission and intellectual assertiveness; how difficult it is to be a strong woman while still holding on to one's emotional vulnerability. I learned so much from her insights...and while I won't be having three or four lovers any time soon (heh), I appreciate the spirit of adventure with which she tried to live her life. It's something I hope to emulate in my own way.
I cried (wept) as I read the last paragraph of Henry and June, because it magically captured exactly where I am at this moment in my life:
Last night, I wept. I wept because the process by which I have become woman was painful. I wept because I was no longer a child with a child's blind faith. I wept because my eyes were opened to reality - to Henry's selfishness, June's love of power, my insatiable creativity which must concern itself with others and cannot be sufficient to itself. I wept because I could not believe anymore and I love to believe. I can still love passionately without believing. That means I love humanly. I wept because from now on I will weep less. I wept because I have lost my pain and I am not yet accustomed to its absence.
How did she know?
Henry and June - Awesome

Interlude: Short Story Night

At the last Short Story Night to be held at my house for a while (sniff!), I was introduced to the following two stories:

Pig, by Roald Dahl - I love how, while the stories in this particular short story collection are intended "for grown ups", he still has that energetic, child-like storytelling ability that pulls you in from the hilarious first section of the story, in which the main character's parents are killed by police breaking into their own house. (and yes, it is funny) It is the story of Lexington, a life-long vegetarian who is raised by his aunt and develops a talent for cooking delicious vegetarian meals. However, everything goes topsy-turvy when he goes back to New York City, the city of his birth, and discovers the glorious taste of....MEAT! Trust me, it's not funny for the reasons you probably think it's funny....

Barn Burning, by William Faulkner - this tells the story of Sarty Snopes and his father, Abner, who has the bad habit of burning people's barns when he feels he's been wronged. Really, it's the story of how Sarty becomes an adult as he's forced to choose between defending his father's honor, and standing up for what's right. It was a powerful story, but Faulkner's prose is so dense that I couldn't really enjoy it as it was read aloud to me. Chunks of story eluded me. It's a story I'd love to read again and sink my teeth into on my own...

Pig - Good Times!
Barn Burning - Eh

Friday, October 06, 2006

Comics: The Next Generation

Currently reading: "Henry and June, from A Journal of Love (1931-32)" by Anais Nin
Next up: "The Odyssey" by Homer (I swear, I'll finish it before I move on to anything else!) then "Tropic of Cancer" by Henry Miller

How does the comic book industry grow its readership? It does what television does....creates a new generation of an already exsisting property to entice new consumers to it while pleasing the current fans. TV's done it with shows like "Star Trek: The Next Generation" and "Tiny Toon Adventures" (the next generation of Looney Tunes), and Marvel Comics is doing it with their "Ultimates" series.
As a relative newbie to comic books, I can't be expected to go wading through decades of comic history to catch up. Thanks to things like the "Ultimates" titles, I don't have to! A friend of mine recommended the Ultimate Spider-Man series, and as I've seen the movies and already love the character, I've recently plowed through the first collection in the series, containing Issues 1-13.
The familiar story of how Peter Parker becomes Spider-Man is all there...but it has a modern teenage sensibility and humor that makes it a pleasure to read! Normally, I am quick to praise the writer and don't really give enough credit to the artists...but in this case Brian Michael Bendis' funny, poignant scripts have wonderful help in Mark Bagley's artwork. For every brilliant exchange between Spider-Man and a villain, (Spider-Man to Kingpin: "...and I really wanted to remember to tell you these things, because they're really important to me! *takes out notes* goes. You are so fat...that when you cut yourself shaving...marshmallow fluff comes out. No? OK, how about this one...? You are so fat...) there is a wordless panel that conveys everything you need to know (Peter Parker excitedly dancing around his room in his underwear comes to mind!). Of particular note is the handling of the relationship between Peter and Mary Jane...very sweet, but also infused with a modern sensibility. Aunt May lecturing Peter on safe sex as he writhes with embarrassment, for instance... Though I'm giving comic collections a rest for a while, I'm very much looking forward to Volume 2.
There is an interesting comic phenomenon going on right now that all started with a little book by Michael Chabon called "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay" (a book I loved!). In that book, the main characters were comic book artists in the 40s who created a character called The Escapist, a comic-book answer to the horrors of WWII. That character has since taken on a life of its own, as Dark Horse Comics purported to "re-release" the "original" Escapist comics in three volumes of collections.
Now, in the most meta of all moves, Dark Horse has released an exciting new miniseries called The Escapists. The Escapists tells the story of young writer, Maxwell Roth, a recent orphan whose father was a huge Escapist fan. Max uses his inheritance to buy the rights to the Escapist, and employs the help of his friends Denny Jones (his letterer) and Case Weaver (the artist with whom he hopes to become more than friends!) in creating a new "Escapist" comic to bring the character to a new generation of readers. The three main characters are charged with a quirky earnestness that makes me care about following them and their story. What makes this miniseries special, though, is that in addition to the interplay between the well-developed "real world" characters, we also get a glimpse of each of the Escapist issues on which they are working.
The most poignant combination of the main characters and the comic they are creating comes in Issue #3, where we see panels of The Escapist chasing Luna Moth in the rain beautifully juxtaposed with speech bubbles from Max and Case, in which their dialogue parallels the visuals, and we see their nascent attraction to each other...
The Escapists is intended to be a 6-part series. Issues #1-3 are already on sale, and Issue #4 comes out next week, Wednesday. What are you waiting for??? Go get it!
Ultimate Spider-Man, Volume 1 - Good Times!
The Escapists - Awesome!