The Black Dossier by Alan Moore

LOEG-coverIf James Joyce’s Ulysses is the demonstration and summation of modernist literature, Alan Moore’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: The Black Dossier is the paradigm for post-postmodernism in graphic novels.  Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad has received critical acclaim for its structure and interconnecting stories.  She has a section consisting of PowerPoint slides, and another that includes text messages, but those techniques pale in comparison to what Moore accomplishes in The Black Dossier.

Volumes 1 and 2 of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen series are critically acclaimed mash-ups of Victorian literature, pulp fiction, steampunk, and Moore’s own twists.  The Black Dossier was to serve as a standalone sourcebook between volume two of the series and a proper volume 3, but it grew into much more.  Moore has stated in various interviews that he and Kevin O’Neill realized early that the series was growing into an attempt to map the entire fictional world and how it relates to fact.  It is a study and commentary on the popular imagination.  But in the structure and complexity of The Black Dossier, I also see the growth and culmination of literary movements throughout history into something new.

Similar to Joyce’s Ulysses, The Black Dossier is very experimental in its structure and construction.  Critics of the book have noted that the narrative plot is very weak.  Mina Harker and Allan Quartermain have recovered The Black Dossier, which contains the secret history of The League.  Emma Night (Peel), Bulldog Drummond, and a young James Bond chase them all over London and Scotland trying to stop them.  In true Moore style, you would have to do a tremendous amount of research to figure out all of the references and allusions, and Moore throws in his twists on characters and events for good measure.  For example, James Bond (Jimmy in the book) is a sadistic womanizer and the events take place in 1958 after the Big Brother government from George Orwell’s Ninteen Eighty Four has fallen.

The narrative is merely a shell for The Black Dossier itself, which Mina and Allan stop to read at various points in the narrative.  The Dossier takes over the story metafictionally (if that’s a word) using faux historical texts, comic strips in various styles, a “lost” Shakespeare folio, prose in the style of H.P Lovecraft and Jack Kerouac, post cards, Big Brother posters in the style of English WWII posters, maps, and more.  Throughout these artifacts are mysterious handwritten notes that point back to the narrative at hand and the previous volumes in the series.  The complexity of it all is overwhelming.

To add to the complexity, the graphic novel contains a 3D section set in “the Blazing World” with glasses.  The cover to the Kerouac section mimics the paperback style of the early Kerouac books when they were published, down to the creases they would have had from being read.  Like Ulysses, you need an annotated version to understand it all.  Some folks have been kind enough to put one together- Black Dossier annotated.

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So what separates Moore’s book from A Visit from the Goon Squad, or Ulysses for that matter?  As a medium, the graphic novel has the potential to capture the contemporary human experience far better than the traditional novel.  We are inundated with visuals and images by television, advertising, and internet.  So much could be done with the medium.

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I think it goes back to the perceived weakness of The Black Dossier– narrative.  Egan’s book, though experimental in structure and technique, is about characters and narrative.  They are “real” characters with “real” stories.  The themes capture truths about the human experience that run deep.  If Moore could capture that along with the genius he has for pop culture, structure, and technique; we would see a phenomenal new literature.

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Our Cancer Year by Harvey Pekar and Joyce Brabner


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I know some will think I’m committing heresy when I say I did not like this nonfiction graphic novel.  I imagine some of my dislike is due to the fact that I’m also reading So Much For That by Lionel Shriver, which also details a character’s battle with cancer and how it affects her care-giver.  So Much For That (fiction)is just a phenomenal book on all levels. I know the supposed beauty of Harvey Pekar’s writing is the simplicity, but when I read it in conjunction with Shriver’s book, it just made Our Cancer Year seem flat, amateurish, and poorly written.

Pekar and Brabner’s account of Harvey’s battle with lymphoma is poignant enough, but it takes some time to get to Harvey even going to the doctor.  The first quarter of the book is all about Joyce’s friends and dealings with the international peace movement, which seems completely disjointed and… well, self-centered.  Characters just appear and the reader is supposed to care about them because Joyce tells us in a few panels that they have had tough lives and are good people.  We get brief updates on these characters through the book, but again it’s like someone telling you about a friend of a friend who you don’t know… while the main character (and her husband) is writhing on the floor from chemo treatments.  And essentially, it all comes across as part of Joyce’s political agenda, which really should have been a completely unrelated book.  SPOILER ALERT: These people, who we really don’t know, come to visit at the end and it helps “heal” Harvey’s depression.  I imagine learning that he beat the cancer has something to do with it.

The dialogue and inner-dialogue throughout seems very, very simplistic and unrealistic.  There are parts where I felt like I was watching that scene in all CSI episodes where they over-explain everything they’re doing so everyone with a fifth grade education can understand it.  It just doesn’t work well in literature, which is disappointing because Pekar is a literature lover.

I wanted to like the book because I have heard so many times that it is a classic, but I just couldn’t get past what seemed like poor writing to me.  I have not read any of the American Splendor series, so I have no way of telling how much of this book is Pekar’s writing and how much is Brabner’s, whose character I didn’t care for.  I saw the movie adaptation when it came out years ago, but honestly the only thing I remember is that Robert Crumb was Pekar’s friend.  Maybe watching it again would give me a better appreciation for the graphic novel.

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Maus II: A Survivor’s Tale by Art Spiegelman

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I read the first volume of Maus by Art Spiegelman several years ago.  It is a classic in the graphic novel medium, and I felt I didn’t need to add much to the plethora of reviews and praises out there in Internet land with my amateur musings.  The book is part of college English and history curricula now.  But honestly, now that I have read the second volume, I think Maus II is the better book. I think the two volumes are now technically considered to be one book, but volume two was published in 1991, five years after volume one.  The collection won the Pulitzer Prize Special Award in 1992.

A lot has been said about the book’s value as a Holocaust narrative, and how it illuminates the cost war has on families generations later.  The second volume picks up the story of Spiegelman’s parents as they enter Auschwitz and are separated. Spiegelman’s father recounts his time in the prison camp and his eventual release. I think what really makes Maus interesting is how Spielgelman weaves together his father’s Auschwitz narrative, his own difficult relationship with his father, and Spiegelman’s struggle to make sense of it all by writing the book. I have seen it mentioned many places, and it is true: the last page of volume two is heartbreaking.

There are still many who don’t give the same weight to good graphic novels as they do to traditional literature. I have to stress that Maus is not just a graphic novel or comic book.  This is literature, deep and wide and heavy.  If you have never read a graphic novel, do yourself a favor.  Pick up both volumes of Maus and read them.  I guarantee you will have a new appreciation for the medium.  You can find Maus II here.

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Moby Dick – Comic Book Love 2

I recently bought a used copy of the Classics Illustrated Moby Dick drawn by Bill Sienkiewicz, and I was not disappointed.  This is the same Bill Sienkiewicz of Elektra and Daredevil fame, the same Sienkiewicz I thought was the greatest comic book artist of all time when I was a teen.

Sienkiewicz brings his unique brand of surrealism and expressionism to the great American novel about dark obsession and madness.  Sienkiewicz’s art captures Ahab’s madness perfectly.  As Ahab’s obsession grows, Sienkiewicz uses a recurring image of a scratchy black and white demonic face that appears in its own box.  This, of course, captures the book’s theme perfectly. Sienkiewicz’s feverish depictions of the crew show how Ahab’s madness spreads to even the most reluctant sailors, and his depictions of the monsterish white whale draw the reader into the fear and mystery that have twisted Ahab’s mind.

If you’ve never read the orignial Moby Dick, Herman Melville intertwined chapters of action and theme-driven plot with scientific chapters on whales and the industry of whaling.  It is a long and strange, but rewarding read. This graphic novel focuses on the action-driven plot and theme to capture the essence of the original story.  All of the famous images and scenes from the original are here: the opening scenes with Ishmael and the tattooed savage, Queequeg; the appearance of Ahab on deck; the making of the coffin and Ahab’s special harpoon; the tri-works, etc.

You can find all of these samples and much more on Sienkiewicz’s site:   http://www.billsienkiewiczart.com/

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The Lost Episodes of Beatie Scareli by Ginnetta Correli

I was pleasantly surprised by this self-published novel by Ginnetta Correli.  The back cover states that it is an “experimental novel written as a hybrid of a bizarre television script.”  I’m not sure that it succeeds as a bizarre television script, but it does come across as an engaging postmodern novel about a young girl who finds herself surrounded by madness and indifference.

Beatie Scareli’s mother is schizophrenic.  She thinks she’s Lucille Ball and Beatie’s father is Ricky Ricardo.  What seems slightly amusing at first quickly becomes a very twisted reality for Beatie.  Her mother is in and out of the asylum.  Her father is unsympathetic.  Beatie is forced to go back and forth between her mother and father once her parents divorce.  She pretends that nothing is wrong at school.  She has imaginary friends, one of which happpens to be the reader.  And Beatie handles it all the way I imagine most young people who know no other reality would handle it- nonchalantly looking for help, desperately trying to keep her childhood, and ultimately trying to escape from the situation.

Ginnetta Correli captures Beatie’s voice in short, minimalist sentences.  Beatie’s character and voice draw the reader into this novel.  The vignettes capture Beatie’s childlike perspective perfectly and frame the scenes of madness that make up her life.  The combination of these elements make this novel hard to put down.  I wanted to know what craziness could possibly happen to this girl next and how she was going to survive it all.

I only have a few complaints about the book.  Correli thanks an friend and “editor” in the end notes, but I think the book could use a professional editor to help emphasize elements of theme and character development, while at the same time eliminate some unnecessary repetitiveness.  For example, in one section of the book, Beatie mentions going to the bathroom repeatedly over several pages and several scenes.  The character even mentions that she goes to the bathroom a lot.  It doesn’t move the action or give any insight into her character besides the fact that she is presumably human and uses the bathroom.  An editor would help focus the book and accentuate the elements that make it a good read to being with.

I think this book has something to say about the human condition, which is what defines good literature.  Some scenes contain things some may find offensive, but Correli’s writing and Beatie’s character give those disturbing scenes validity and poignancy.

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Into the Volcano by Don Wood (Early Reviewer Book)

I’ve been trying to think of unique ways to describe this graphic novel without using “visually stunning” and “breathtakingly beautiful,” but I can’t do it.  Every panel is a work of art.  The scenes where the lava meets the ocean are perfect.  It’s just ink on a page, but Wood captures the light, the hiss, and the heat.  The graphic novel not only stands up to artistic scrutiny, but also has a gripping story.

It’s a mystery- adventure that appeals to a younger audience, but I found myself engrossed. Brothers, Sumo and Duffy, are pulled out of class unexpectedly by their father to be shipped off to an island with a mysterious cousin they’ve never met.  The whole enterprise is shady, and when the boys meet Auntie, it gets even more suspicious.  The book twists and turns, so the reader is never quite sure who’s good and who’s bad.  The boys have to do some self-reflection.

Wood’s artistic portrayals of the characters captivated me.  I was shaken by overweight Auntie with her greenish-pink skin and broken foot.  I immediately knew something wasn’t quite right with her.  You can almost smell her.  The boys have a  pugish Hawaiian look, which made me not fall for them right away.  That’s a good thing.  Most books aimed at younger audiences try to win the reader over to the protagonist’s side with sentimentality too soon. Wood’s style and scope gives the book a cinematic depth that I have rarely seen in graphic novels.  One panel you’re in the boat with the characters, waves pounding; the next you have a bird’s eye view.  It sets a fast adventure pace that young readers will love.

Overall, I’ll be shocked if Into The Volcano doesn’t win some awards.

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Maus- Art Spiegelman

After playing the Indiana Jones Legos game on the Wii and seeing the triology box set of the movies, my eldest son has become interested in WWII and the Nazis as bad guys.  That reminded me of the seminal graphic novel Maus by Art Spiegelman.  Since the Nazis portrayed the Jews as vermin to be exterminated, Spiegelman draws the Jews as mice and Nazis as cats.  This cat and mouse metaphor makes the reader comfortable with the very serious material using seemingly harmless animal comic characters, but it also creates many levels of meaning dealing with racial stereotypes, nationalistic identities, and the commonality of humanity.

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Terminus

I will spend the New Year at home with my family. No exciting parties- the kids are watching Shrek 2 on TV and eating popcorn. I was thinking of writing about Jim Carroll (the poet, diarist, rock singer) last night, but realized it would take multiple posts and an amount of work I’m unwilling to commit at the moment to do the man justice. I had the pleasure of seeing him give a reading at a local college in the mid-’90s. He was excellent. Among his own work, Jim read a poem by Nicholas Christopher, which sent chills and silence through the room. The poem is called “Terminus.” I posted it below. I think besides Jim’s own “Eight Fragments for Kurt Cobain,” this was the best reading that night. The poem is about the things humans do and have done since the beginning of time. I post it now, at the end of the year, in an attempt to make us think about this long history we have of doing horrible things to one another. Let’s try to change individually. Continue reading “Terminus”

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Elektra: Assassin – comic book love

Elektra cover

The Zeppelin post put me in mind of my thirteen-year-old days.  I read the Elektra: Assassin graphic novel, which collected all eight issues written by Frank Miller and painted by Bill Sienkiewicz, until the spine broke and the pages fell out all over the inside of my locker.  I had never seen a comic drawn or written like it before.

Elektra is the daughter of a Greek ambassador who is assassinated.  She is trained in childhood by a master assassin / kung-fu guy.  We get a brief glimpse into her background and psychosis.  Now she is planning to assassinate the President, Ken Wind, who appears to be an anti-christ-like figure.  He is referred to as “The Beast.”    Continue reading “Elektra: Assassin – comic book love”

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