Opus 96:

Opus 96: REVIEWS, A TRIP REPORT, & SANDY EGGO (July 29). The first of three issues of Marc Hempel's Naked Brain is now on the stands. If, by some demented chance, you've failed to witness this performance in its native habitat (www.sunnyfundays.com), this is your chance to catch up with the rest of the civilized world. Mostly what we have here is a series of manic one-page strips and cartoons "from America's most beloved semi-obscure cartoonist," as it sez here-"Uncensored! Subversive Satire! Sublime Silliness!" And it's all so true. It is, precisely, what Hempel says it is: "a showcase for all the myriad weird and funny stuff that I often inadvertently come up with. (I swear, sometimes my brain seems to have a mind of its own.) All served up with puns, existentialism, and especially (the stuff kids clamor for) IRONY!" But to say that one of the strips is about a guy who is agonizing in bed that he can't go back to sleep because his alarm is about to go off and, when it goes off, goes back to sleep-or that another introduces us to a fella walking along enjoying a nice sunny day with particular pleasure because no one can tell when he's farting-to provide such seemingly complete description is to leave out the truly funny stuff. Hempel's drawings. His drawings are designs, hilariously and ingeniously concocted abstractions of human shapes and their accouterments. Hempel's sense of humor is antic and irreverent, and it is also graphically inspired: the comedy resides as much (if not more) in the pictures-or arises from them-as in the situations they depict. Oh, and this issue also includes 6 pages of sketches of barenekidwimmin from Hempel's sketchbooks and a brand new 4-page Tug and Buster story (in which Stinkfinger bets Buster $20 that he can't go for One Minute without saying something about Tug), plus "the very first T&B strip (first published in a convention booklet)" not to mention (but I will) a highly decorative and comedic cover in color. Don't miss this one.

            Regrettably, I can't say the same for other Number Ones out last week. Comic books are undeniably better than ever-in artwork and in narrative sophistication. No question. But, as I've said here before, various of the Young Turks now cranking out stories for comics seem to be testing their screenplay wings. Unhappily, comics are not movies. Suspense can be created in a motion picture by withholding expository information for many of the flick's opening minutes. Typically, we are plunged into the middle of some on-going action or unfolding incident that remains a puzzle to us until it is concluded a few minutes into the movie. No one explains what is going on; we merely witness it. And are baffled by it. Or provoked into wondering what the hell.... And that works just fine. In the movies. But when the same technique is applied to comic books (and it is being applied, more and more), it falls flat. Instead of suspense, we get boredom. In comics, the inexplicable slice of life gambit doesn't work unless it reaches some sort of explication a few pages into the issue. It just doesn't work to postpone the explanation until a later issue. I call these failed efforts "page turners" but not for the traditional reason. A page turner in common parlance refers to a book that is so exciting it keeps you turning pages, but these page turners are only page turners: you keep turning the pages simply because that's the format of the artifact, and you hope, vainly as it turns out, that by turning the page you'll find something that'll make sense of the otherwise banal nose-picking reality being displayed before you.

            Such books are all atmosphere and no discernible plot. Scott Morse's Elektra: Glimpse & Echo is one such. Thankfully, the opening page is all text and gives us Elektra's biography; otherwise, the rest of the issue would be a pointless display of colorful wallpaper. Even so, not much in the way of "story" emerges. Elektra visits her father's grave in the cemetery, encounters a black cat hiding behind a tombstone, is assaulted by a ninja from The Hand (I think, it's hard to derive actual meaning from the syntactic convolutions of his answer to her question, "Who are you with? The Hand?" when he responds, "If I wasn't, you'd have killed me by now."), kills the guy as he perches on a gravestone with "Black Cat" engraved on it, and he, as he expires, tells her to "go see Rick," so she goes to a jazz joint and hears the story of trumpet-player Buddy "Black Cat" Crawford and gets an assignment to kill somebody and is, as she leaves, attacked again by a minion from The Hand, whom she dispatches. He chuckles softly as he vanishes like a wraith of smoke. "Just do the job," he murmurs, "or things might get scary. Might end up dead-heh, heh, heh." All provocation and no explanation. The Black Cat is gonna figure in this, though, that's for sure. Otherwise, Morse is merely stringing us along. And his fully painted pictures have little personality or appeal: they're flat tones layered like wrapping paper colors. Nice decoration perhaps but of little narrative use.

            Y-The Last Man is somewhat better. The premise of the tale by Brian Vaughan and Pia Guerra is that a mysterious plague wipes out every being on the planet with a Y chromosome. Every male, in other words, except amateur escape artist Yorick Brown and his pet monkey, who is also male. We don't know why Yorick should escape the fate that has befallen 48% of the human race. And we wouldn't know about the plague or the chromosome thing if we didn't read Vaughan's expository editorial and the back page text, welcoming us to "the unmanned world." The comics part of this first issue presents us with mini-portraits of several female characters in the minutes before the plague strikes. If you take the word "plague" out of that last sentence and substitute "X," you'll know everything the comics (without Vaughan's text explanations) reveals. The narrative device of this issue is clever: each segment about a different character is introduced with a place name and a time marker-"Al Karak, Jordan, Thirteen Minutes Ago"-which, through relentless repetition, alerts us to an impending "something." Which, as I said, turns out to be the death of male humanity. In the closing pages of the book, we witness this wholesale expiration, panel after panel, in place after place around the globe. A nice device. But the book, as I say, would fail without the explanation provided by the extraneous text. Guerra's artwork is thoroughly competent but wholly uninspired: perspective and point-of-view are about the same throughout.

            Paul Pope's 100% is another pointless extravaganza. And an expensive one. Admittedly bigger than the average book (48 pages), it's just in black-and-white-and-gray although on slick paper. But $5.95 for this? Calling this effort a "graphic movie" sort of gives away Pope's aspiration and his method, and he does precisely what I've been railing against. The first issue is all slice-of-life stuff about his cast, but the premise of the series (which will, mercifully, last only five issues) is wholly unspoken. Text pieces on the inside covers, posing as articles in some sort of newspaper, approach an explanation but don't quite reach it. Not until No. 2, which provides an admirably succinct summary of what happened in No. 1, do we learn that all our protagonists work in a nightclub which features erotic dancers outfitted with electronic devices that reveal what is happening inside their bodies as they dance and gyrate erotically. This, we are told, is the latest fad. In the first issue, however, all we know is that Kim, one of the women characters, is so worried about a mysterious murder that she buys a handgun for self-protection. That's as much plot as there is there. The rest of the 48 pages are devoted to introducing, as cryptically as possible, Kim's friend Strel, a single mom who manages the dancers at the Catshack; John, a barback at the Catshack; and Daisy, a newly arrived (but experienced) dancer. Good in a movie, perhaps, but tiresome in a comic book. Pope's artwork, performed with a brush, is often clotted with fat lines where thin lines would be better; fat lines in the wrong places give visual emphasis to unimportant elements in the picture, distracting the viewer and obscuring the really significant visual cues. And he's given to modeling aspects of faces and anatomy with little meaningless lines and other graphic tics.

            Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill do a little better with the first issue of the sequel to The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. The entire issue is devoted to depicting an invasion by an alien force. Or is it? Moore lays on the mysteriousness by not identifying the apparent protagonists of this exercise, and when they speak, much of the time, the speech balloons are filled with meaningless (though potent seeming) hieroglyphics. Judging from some of the four-armed beings, I suspect Edgar Rice Burroughs is loose somewhere in here. Much of the action takes place in complete funnybook "silence" (no words), and O'Neill inventively fills the panels with fantastic forms galore. But at the end of this issue, we learn that Gullivar and John (our heroes thus far) are apparently on another planet, Mars perhaps, and that the alien force they've encountered is heading for Earth. Then on the last pages, we meet, again, the League of Literary Heroes that Moore has mustered before as they convene, presumably to investigate the aliens' landing site. Again, all a puzzle. But by the end, this issue's puzzle-who the alien force is and what they're up to-has been explained, or an explanation has been hinted at. And the cliffhanger, the introduction of the League, is sufficient to bring us back to (a) Moore's world and (b) the next issue.

            Apache Skies No. 1 by John Ostrander and Leonardo Manco is another matter altogether. To begin with, it is a visual feast. The artwork, painted drawings, evokes both Paolo Serpieri and J.C. Leyendecker with its sumptuous modulations. The story, which is cryptic enough to qualify in the modern storytelling heats, introduces us to the Apache Kid's "woman," who, an accomplished gun-slinger herself, is apparently avenging the murder of her "man." We also meet a somewhat harder bitten Rawhide Kid than we might have encountered thirty years ago in his own title. The story moves to a denouement of this episode while also postponing complex exposition until a later issue, but we aren't baffled: we're kept wondering, kept curious, but there is enough storyline to give us something to hang onto and follow.

            And then we have the first of a 2-issue series, "The Third Wish," of Mike Mignola's Hellboy. A pure delight. And one that unhorses my whole argument, tovarich; but no argument holds up against such talent as Mignola's. I confess I don't know what's going on here, but I'm always in the dark with paranormal material. In any event, Mignola isn't playing movie tricks here. The paranormal simply defies explanation, that's all. Hellboy meets a mysterious sort of wizard, jumps into the ocean, and is taken prisoner by the fish-like Bog Roosh, who vows to kill him in the next issue. But that's not the whole story. The rest of the story is in Mignola's pictures. We can tell from the varying layout, the sizes of the panels, the changes in hues, and the silent progressions that we're in the comics medium. This is not a rehearsal for a motion picture: this is comics. And it's comics beautifully done. I read Mignola when I want the reverie of seeing beautiful things, undisturbed by a storyline that floats by, eddying back and forth between the banks of actuality and the supernatural-undisturbed but not disengaged. A reverie indeed.

AN INTERLUDE IN THE OLDE MERRIE. One of the world's happier myths posits a quiet English countryside. It is, I assure you, having just returned from two weeks traversing it, a myth. The English countryside of picture postcard fame is still there-gently rolling hills, hedgerows running wild (or, up north, meandering stone walls), shades of green everywhere you look, distant vistas punctuated occasionally by the slender soaring spires of distant village churches. A delightful prospect but not at all quiet. It trembles (or maybe it was only me) with the roar of miniature British automobiles, hurtling down desperately narrow roadways at breakneck speeds, all aiming directly at me in my rented Renault with the steering wheel on the wrong side. According to the country's custom, I, too, was on the wrong side, driving on the left side of the highways and streets. If that wasn't disconcerting enough, my unfamiliarity with the vehicle completed the hazard. I wasn't sure, exactly, where the left-hand wheels were running on the pavement; ditto the right-hand wheels. While this sort of precision doesn't matter much on U.S. highways, which are wide, it matters a great deal in Britain where the roads are, often, treacherously narrow. Moreover, shoulders scarcely exist; instead, the edge of the pavement is frequently marked by curbing, which, if you misapprehend the position of your car on the road, you wind up bumping up onto-a startling maneuver fraught with danger: should you react too violently, you will veer off the curbing onto the pavement and into the lane of onrushing traffic, hurtling, as I said, directly at you.

            The roads are mined with dangers. Because none of them have shoulders, people who want to stop simply do, positioning their car as far "off the road" as possible, which, under most circumstances, is not at all off the road whatsoever but on it, an obstacle the unwary motorist might crash into should he come upon it from 'round the bend. The quaint English towns are festooned with such perils. The streets, which have been there since medieval times when they were, doubtless, plenty wide for horses and their riders, are often lined with cars that have been parked at the edge of the traffic lanes because there is no room for parking lanes. At the edge of the traffic lanes but not out of them. That makes the already narrow passageways even narrower, and if, like me, you aren't quite sure where your vehicle is on the road, you race by these rows of parked cars convinced that your left-hand rear-view mirror is going to be sheered off as you ease a little closer to the parked cars in order to avoid being clipped on the other side (the driver's side) by a rapidly advancing lorry, a behemoth of several tons no doubt-and seeming wider than anything else on wheels-on the other side of the street.

            After several adventures of this sort, traveling on the high-speed motorways-M1, M6, and others, all six lanes, three in each direction-is a relief even at 70-80 mph, bumper-to-bumper all the time.

            Another myth about Merrie Olde Englande is that the British driver is a reckless speedster. He may be fast but he is not reckless. In my view, British drivers are probably the most skilled in the world. They must be in order to survive driving at the speeds they attain while dodging the hazards that litter the roadway, willy nilly-narrow passages, looming curbstones, rocketing multi-ton lorries, and confused and frenzied drivers from other countries, all of which, in their native climes, drive on the right side of the road, not the left. One shopkeeper told us about having a head-on collision with an American woman driver, who rounded a blind corner on the "right" side of the road. She forgot, she explained, which country she was driving in. Our shopkeeper emerged mostly unscathed from the encounter because, he said, he was driving a Volvo.

            But the highways are not as frustrating to drive as the towns are. Apart from the parking hazard described above, there's the little matter of street signs. There often aren't any. As my wife and navigator put it: "Why bother to name the streets if you don't put up street signs?" Astute, you must admit. We were following exhaustively detailed street maps that conscientiously labeled every street and alley (a particularly helpful gesture, considering that some streets change their names every three or four blocks, a remnant of some medieval quirk, no doubt), but the maps were virtually useless most of the time because the streets in the corresponding actual world were not labeled at all.

            Another myth that actuality somewhat denies is the one about the outrageousness of the British tabloid newspaper. Yes, the Page Three Girl is almost always naked from the navel up. And the tabloids run stunningly sensational headlines: "Why Do We Have Nurses Who Can't Speak English?" asks the Daily Express. And at the Daily Mirror, we learn about "The Big Wet Killer" in an "Exclusive: My Brutal Life with Britain's Nastiest Piece of Work by His Teenage Lover." And the Daily Star offers "Kate's Sex Toy Games" and "Bride Who Hasn't Left Her Home for 10 Years."

            But the week's champion is the Daily Sport, which shouts, "Britney Spears Topless-Wet T-shirt Photos Shock!" publishing a front-page picture of Spears in a wet T-shirt but with the bosom discretely covered by a boxed headline reading, "You Get To See Everything!!!" Then inside, after such screamers as "Three Badly Hurt as Knife Man Runs Amok in Street," Punters Keep Shagging in My Pub," and "Undertaker Jailed for Dirty Deeds in Chapel," we find another full-page photo of Spears, this time-as advertised-showing "everything" under that wet T-shirt, but with an equally revealing caption: "Internet jokers excelled themselves yesterday by putting this sizzling FAKE snap of pop stunna Britney Spears on the Web." Well, sure, I knew it was (they were) fake all the time.

            But the rest of the British journalistic establishment seems to me remarkably good. Such papers as the Times, Guardian, Daily Telegraph and others of the more serious class brim with reportorial text. There's much less advertising than in their U.S. counterpart (which feels it must have better than 60% of its pages devoted to advertising) and lots more information, page after page of prose with no ads in sight. In one issue of the Sunday Times, for instance, I read in-depth accounts about conditions in Bosnia, the Middle East, and AIDS in Botswana, all written by eye-witness reporters, who dispassionately (but thoughtfully) recorded their observations, buttressed with numerous interviews with the native population and other external fact sources. I felt informed rather than merely entertained, my usual response to American newspapers, which, of course, have pages of comics to read, a feature not in evidence in British papers. The Daily Mail's daily offerings number only five, including the posthumous Fred Basset and Peanuts. The Sunday Times' comics section (dubbed "The Funday Times") includes what appear to be two reprints from American comic books-Scooby Doo and Tom and Jerry, the indigenous efforts consisting of fumenitti and the British Dennis the Menace (from Beano), the similarly depraved juvenile, Beryl the Peril, and such froth as single-tier strips Robot Crusoe, Squirt, and Jarvis as well as an assortment of puzzles and games. By comparison, pretty thin gruel.

            While my survey of the newspaper landscape was scarcely scientific or exhaustive, I felt the average editorial cartoon was somewhat nastier than the average American editorial cartoon-but mostly lacking in metaphorical impact. Lots of rude caricatures of political figures saying alarming things to one another, but nothing else. No imagery that would linger in the back of the reader's mind until election day, insinuating the cartoonist's view into decision-making by haunting the voter with a potent visual metaphor-like Herblock's Atom Bum, for instance, or Maudlin's grieving Lincoln on the occasion of Kennedy's assassination. Nothing, even, like last week's cartoon by Jim Borgman in which he depicts Bush the Younger in bed, being visited by Bush the Elder in the guise of the Ghost of Christmas Past, a Dickensian allusion, which, for this incarnation, Borgman has labeled "The Ghost of 90% Approval Ratings Past." Bush the Elder is bedecked with Marley-like chains and carries signs saying "Tough on War" and "Weak on Economy," and he's intoning "Reeeeead myyyyy liiiiips." Even for unread American readers for whom literary allusions are beyond comprehension, the metaphor, invoking the ever-popular Christmas Carol, has some potency. (And for some readers, the allusion, which makes Bush the Younger the "Scrooge" of the Dickens metaphor, has additional implications, suggesting the parsimonious rich man who isn't about to share his wealth with the hoi-polloi like you and me, kimo sabe, because he's too busy approving tax cuts only for the rich. But maybe I'm reading too much into Borgman's allusion. I hope not, though.)

            The only so-called editorial cartoon I saw that seemed pointed and well-executed was Mac's in the Daily Mail, evocative of the immortal Giles.

            Lest these minor-key carpings be misunderstood, I hesitate not at all to say that my wife and I had a great time in England. We've visited twice before (years-alas, too long-ago), and we enjoy everything about the country-its history, culture, architecture, people, pubs, and bitter-except the hazards of the highway, which are, truth to tell, the direct consequence of our own ineptness not anything native to the country.

            As usual, I took photographs of nearly everything I looked at, prompting my wife to ask why. "You take all these photographs," she said, "and get them developed, look at them, and then put them away and never look at them again. Why bother?"

            Which led me to ponder my compulsion. I decided, without too much effort, that my photographing obsession was but another aspect of the Acquisitive Syndrome that afflicts (indeed, defines) most collectors. Taking a photo is like buying a book or a comic. Part of the book collecting mania is the pleasure of acquiring some scarce item. Part of the motive is to have the item to read or peruse-someday. A particular volume may pique curiosity: what IS this about? I'll buy it and read it and find out. Part of the reason for acquiring the book is to have it so it will be handy when I want to actually read it; I won't have to make a trip to the library (only to discover, because the book is somewhat rare, that it isn't on the shelves there but must be ordered through interlibrary loan, and by the time the book actually arrives, my interest in it may have waned, again, until the next time). But the most intense of the pleasures associated with collecting books is the pleasure in finding the book and, then, in acquiring it. Actually owning the tome is less important than acquiring it. By the same token, the pleasure in photography derives, first, from discovering a pleasing prospect and, then, from "acquiring" it by "taking" the picture. ("Acquire" and "take," curiously, have roughly the same meaning.) It's the act of acquisition that brings the pleasure that is the motivation. What happens to the photograph after it's been taken (and viewing the newly developed photos is the only way to assure yourself that you've actually acquired the view you aimed at) is almost insignificant.

            We visited Salisbury, the Cotswolds, Stratford, Warwick (where the ancestral castle, acquired by Tussaud's in 1978, is now run as a theme park-and very well run, too), the Lake District, the Potteries (a concession to my wife), and Hay-on-Wye (a concession to me). Hay is a small village on the border between Wales and England. Its fame (and hence its interest to me) resides in its being the self-proclaimed world capital of second-hand bookstores. Within a few blocks of one another are nearly three dozen bookstores; the populace, merely 1,400 souls, is almost entirely bookshopkeepers, it would appear. Those who don't shelve used books for a living run one of several pubs, perhaps a grocery store, the post office, one of the restaurants, or one of a host of bed-and-breakfast establishments.

            Hay's fame is enhanced by two of its other landmarks on the cultural landscape. One of these is the Sunday Times Hay Festival of Literature, a ten-day celebration conducted, since 1988, early every summer (usually, the last week in May), attracting an unlikely array of writers, politicians, poets, musicians, comedians, and actors, most of whom are well-known world-wide-Ken Dodd, John Fowles, Jackie Collins, John Mortimer, Lauren Bacall, Sir Dirk Bogarde, Sue Townsend, Michael Palin and others of this ilk have all been to the Festival, I am assured, "at least once." (For more on this subject, e-mail boxoffice@litfest.co.uk.) Hay's other cultural achievement is to have declared, in 1977, its independence as a separate nation.

            Both of these civic curiosities exist because of Richard Booth. Booth, a graduate of Oxford with a passion for used books, bought a shop in Hay in 1961 and started stocking it with second-hand books. And one thing led, as such things do, to another. When he filled up one building, he saw the need to establish "specialized" shops, which, by dividing his stock into categories, would make continued acquisition possible. And as he achieved success with a small collection of shops, others of the citizenry (many of whom had worked for Booth and been trained by him) set up other specialty shops of used books, following their individual expertises. And on and on.

            Booth eventually bought the ruined castle on the hill overlooking the town, renovated enough of its rooms to house more bookshelves, and moved many of his specialty shops into this medieval pile. One of these is the "Honesty Bookshop": a bunch of bookshelves in the open air at the foot of the hill, the bookshop is unstaffed, and browsers are advised that paperbacks are 10p (about 15 cents) and hardbacks 50p (about 75 cents), take what you want and leave the money in the slotted box on the wall.

            Within a dozen years or so, Booth had achieved the first of his objectives. (An energetic and imaginative iconoclast, he has many objectives, as we'll see in a trice.) He had put Hay-on-Wye on the map as a center of the used and antiquarian book trade. Antique stores soon sprouted, and a craft center was established.

            In 1976, Booth (as I said, an energetic anti-establishment wite) decided Hay should sever all relations with Wales and England and set itself up as an independent nation-state. Explaining that "Hay is between Wales and England" and is therefore in neither, the town was perfectly situated geographically to claim independence. Booth was inspired by his conviction that the bureaucracies of big government, rather than protecting the interests of rural areas and small towns, were most committed to helping big business capture the trade in food, drink, clothing, energy and other essentials throughout the country. To escape the clutch of government, then, he launched his campaign, "Home Rule for Hay," on April 1, 1977, deploying such slogans as: "Balls to Walls, Eat Hay National Ice Cream," "Father Died of Mother's Pride," and "Abolish the Wales Tourist Board."

            Having successfully stimulated the creation of other "book towns" around the world, Booth's aspirations for home rule did not seem, to him, at all unrealistic. "You buy books from all over the world, and your customers come from all over the world," he has said; and his experience has confirmed the accuracy of his assertion. Similarly, home rule in Hay would establish the virtues of the simpler, un-governmented, life once again.

            Booth's concern (it sez here) about the decline of the manual and traditional economy-illustrated by the appalling amount of litter which big business is sprinkling all over the countryside-has strengthened his argument. Chemical agriculture, the horrors of factory farming, supermarket food and rural unemployment will increase, he believes, while universities are so heavily subsidized to promote them. Big business backed by big government are the joint enemies of rural areas and as a specialist in the printed word, Booth realizes that the media are paid by the big business and consequently the logic of the conflict between greedy big business and wholesome rural verities will never be revealed except in such bootstrap efforts as "Home Rule for Hay." The importance and efficacy of "manual labor" is borne out by his own bookstore success: when twenty to twenty-five manual workers in Richard Booth Bookshops Limited can bring into Hay more books than every university and public library in Wales combined-and create a flourishing book trade-how impractical and uncompetitive can manual labor be?

            Booth claims his "downtown" (as opposed to hilltop) shop is the world's largest second-hand bookstore. I question that. I suspect Powell's in Portland, Oregon, has a better claim to the title; or John King's four- (or is it five-?) story store in Detroit. Or-what is the name of that ramshackle old four-story warehouse on the river in downtown Milwaukee? But Booth's shop is unquestionably a treasure trove of old books, and I loved every minute I could spare browsing in it. You can visit it at www.richardbooth.demon.co.uk or write for availability of that fugitive title you've been seeking at enquiries@boothbooks.co.uk. For more in book searching, try www.haybooks.com.

WHITHER NEXT? After two weeks in England, you'd think I'd stay home for awhile. But Sandy Eggo beckons. I'll be there, as usual. I have a spot in Artists alley (CC-13, they tell me), but I'm there only parts of every day; my "hours" are posted at the table. I'll also spend some time at the booth of the National Cartoonists Society (1050), where some of my books will be for sale. Then, in two weeks hence, I'll be back here with more deathless prose and picayune opinion.

            Meanwhile, in San Diego, drop by and stay 'tooned.

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