"The Beats: A Graphic History" by Ed Piskor and Harvey Pekar

When I met William S Burroughs during a reading at Powell's books in Portland circa 1995 he was an old, hunched-over man, hardly distinctive except for the entourage and reverence that followed him. Reading "The Beats: A Graphic History" gives a completely different view of Burroughs. Harvey Pekar's script and Ed Piskor's clean black and white art distill the man's life into a series of marginal, crazy and often violent episodes, including a drunken "William Tell" stunt that ended with his wife's death and jail time for Burroughs. The sparse script hits all the key points that explain why Burroughs is now firmly ingrained in popular and literary culture.

"The Beats" is split into two sections. The first 100 pages focus on the trinity of Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and Burroughs and is cleanly written and drawn by Pekar and Piskor. Together the three segments on these three icons of the Beat writers cover the length and breadth, highs and lows of their lives with surprising clarity and brevity. Pekar lays out Kerouac's pinball lifestyle, Burroughs' self-destructive line-drive, and Ginsberg's ever-expanding drive for everyone to get along and love each other. The clean black and white drawings of Piskor remind me of a religious tract a la Chick publications or an anti-drug comic, warning you what will happen to your soul if you become a Beat poet.

The second part, called "The Beats: Perspectives" includes details on the San Francisco poetry renaissance, Lawrence Ferlenghetti, Gregory Corso, Gary Snyder, Ken Kesey, Beatnik Chicks, and other lesser known Beat figures such as Ken Rexroth. In the second section Pekar & Pisko still contribute quite a bit of work, but they also step aside for other writers and artists such as Nancy J. Peters, Trina Robbins, and others. I especially enjoyed the counter-point to the counter-culture in the essay "Beatnik Chicks" by Joyce Brabner and Summer McClinton. I was also captured by the Tuli Kupferberg segment drawn by Jeffrey Lewis in a Crumb-like style.

The essays also have the ability to condense and shift time in a way that makes it easier to gain perspective. I had never really thought of Kerouac as a product of WWII, but the concise biography helped. Another significant event was October 7, 1955 -- the "big bang" of Beatniks. Known as "The Six Gallery Reading," it brought together the East and West Coast factions of the Beat Generation and was also the first public reading of Ginberg's "Howl". All the essays in the book hover around this day in a Rashomon-like manner. And finally another important year mentioned in "The Beats" is 1961, the "upside down year." It's the same year when read upside down, but it's also the year teenagers began to have more influence than their parents. It's also the year that Beatniks invaded popular culture in the form of Maynard from "Dobie Gillis," or Buz from "Route 66".

In my opinion "The Beats" should be required reading for any high-school or college student who's been assigned to read the works of these authors. I've read "On The Road," "Junkie," and "Howl," along with other books from the canon ("Subterraneans", "Naked Lunch", the list goes on...) but as semi-autobiographical as their works may be, the lens is still screwed up by their own visions. It takes someone as cynical and bitter as Pekar to lay out the facts panel by panel, including Kerouac's middle-class aspirations to buy his mom a house and reject his radical younger days right next to a panel describing his gaining popularity. He also contrasts Ginsberg's failure to address violence at the Naropa school (co-founded by Ginsberg) with his ant-war protests. Never one to shy from being "drawn out" (pun intended) Pekar occasionally includes himself and his own comments in the narrative.

After I read "The Beats" I had a new inspiration to re-read "On The Road" and the other books and poems mentioned in the essays. It's an inspiring book -- give it a try!

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Life During Wartime: Comic Ads 1943

These two ads are the outside and inside covers to Captain Marvel Adventures #28 from 1943. Since they're from during WWII, it's not unusual they mention the war, but I was struck by the difference in attitudes & advertising regarding the war in the 40's and the current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

For example, the X-acto Knives proclaim: "Help Uncle Sam - Make official Plane Models". I have no idea how making plane models helped the US war effort, but they explain how you can use your X-acto Knives to start building for Uncle Sam right away. The cartoon shows one kid saying "I want to make Navy models too. I'll ask Dad for a set (of knives)." Dad, being patriotic completely agrees: "Sure, son, here's the money. You're serving Uncle Sam right now!" They also have an offer for a booklet: "How to Build Scale Models - Defense" which claims to be "profusely illustrated. Chuck full of information."

Try indoctrinating school-age kids into fighting the war nowadays and see how far that'll fly. "Hey, kids! Learn how to differentiate between Al Qaida and Al-Shabab" (Hmmm, I don't see it).

The war also invaded Christmas Card sales. This ad asks kids to sell cards and get "swell prizes." The set of toys you can get includes a U.S. Army outfit with "a snappy officer's belt and cap outfit with an automatic-type pistol". Also an "American Craft So. Cal Raider" machine gun that "...operates on a swivel or dismounted, like army guns." There's the "pre-flight training set - exactly like regular airplane cockpit...gunsight and cannon trigger too." Other prizes include War Games and an Army Suit alongside more traditional prizes such as the "Old Spice" Toilet Kit and a Gene Autry Guitar.

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Captain Marvel Adventures #28 (October 1943)

Excalibur Comics had a 1/2 price sale this weekend, and I picked up a ragged copy of Captain Marvel Adventures #28 from October, 1943 on the cheap. It's in poor condition, but readable and quite a bit of fun.

This issue is a time capsule in itself. It's hard to believe CMA was more popular than Superman, but even in 1943 they boast right on the front cover: "Largest Circulation of Any Comic Magazine." The war-time Capt. Marvel stories had a certain cachet to them: he fought against the Nazis, the stories often included actual locales and real public figures, and they still had a sense of humor to them. In this issue Hitler sends a cadre of Nazi agents to San Francisco where a mysterious character called the Fog Phantom helps them to take over the city and establish a base at Coit Tower.

The real people in the story include mayor Joseph Rossi, KPO radio announcer Archie Presby, and columnist Prescott Sullivan from the SF Examiner.

Also, the locations include Alcatraz Prison, Coit Tower, Chinatown, even the Smith Wholesale office, who apparently distributed Fawcett comics in SF in the 40's. Note the Capt. Marvel posters in the background of the distribution office.

Since the comic came out smack in the midst of WWII, it's hard not to notice that everything in this issue shows the mentality of the times. Hitler appears in two of the stories. Also the masthead shows that Eleanor B. Roosevelt (past president of the Girl Scouts council for New York) and Rear Admiral Richard E Byrd are on the Editorial Advisory Board. Of course C.C. Beck is the "Chief Artist," but it doesn't say who wrote the stories. They contain so much open propaganda I wonder if the writer was in earnest, or was the patriotic content dictated by a higher authority? Anyone know?

Even the inside front cover advertises a book "Fun for Boys" which includes topics such as Spotting Planes to recognize enemy vs friendly planes and how to protecting yourself with Jiu Jitsu, just like the Marines, Soldiers and G-Men do!

This issue also includes Chapter VII of the serial popularly called "The Monster Society of Evil." In this chapter, "The Lost Sunrise," Mr. Mind wants to stop the Earth's revolution, giving Nazi Germany eternal sunlight while leaving America in the dark. Mr. Mind first meets the Nazis as he falls into a shipment of black market meat while escaping from the Big Red Cheese. The meat is shipped to Herman Goering, who brings the worm to Hitler, and together the three evil-doers plot to destroy America. Capt. Marvel foils the plot but in the process has to let Mr. Mind and Hitler escape.

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"Asterios Polyp" by David Mazzuchelli

What three things would you grab if your house were burning and you had to leave immediately? That's the question posed, both real and theoretically, to Asterios Polyp, the title character of David Mazzuchelli's new graphic novel. This question poses more of a problem for Asterios than for most people because he prefers to use dichotomy to structure his life, dividing everything cleanly into two opposing pieces. He proceeds to chop his world into pieces until he meets a woman named Hana, who is more comfortable with uncertainty and shades of gray. She's the one that asks him the question hypothetically, and it's clearly in his head at the beginning of the book as we watch lightning strike and burn down his New York apartment. But even Occam's razor can't explain why he eventually gives away the three items he's rescued from the burning building. For that answer you have to read the book.

The book is narrated by Asterios' twin Ignatz, who died in childbirth. He tells the story of Asterios, an over-educated architect who has never designed anything actually built, and who teaches college and moves through life with a purpose, but without direction. He constructs rules for dealing with life and quotes them to his students as if they were the bible. As his star is rising he meets a sculptor and artist named Hana, who appreciates and loves his world, but also brings fuzziness to his life, complicating things.

For some reason as I read the story the word 'erudite' kept popping into my head ("characterized by learning"). Asterios is someone who's interesting to be with because he makes you feel smart. At least until he uses his analytical mind on you, at which point the dissection can become uncomfortable, but makes for compelling reading. Mazzuchelli isn't afraid to take side trips while telling the story, and I appreciated that. It reinforces theme: here's an intelligent guy, but he still has a lot to learn. This is reflected in a scene with one character who pontificates that after the 60's the goverment realized that an educated people were too hard to govern, so that why they've cut school funding for the past 30 years. There are also numerous allusions to the question of God vs gods vs free will; what makes a relationship work (the answer is shown with 3 beer coasters); and even a retelling of the Orpheus legend.

To enrich his storytelling efforts Mazzuchelli throws in tons of literal and graphical puns. The character's name, for example: Asterios, meaning a star, perhaps the star of the book and his life. But then adds 'polyp' to the name: an abnormal growth of tissue projecting from a mucous membrane, reflecting Asterios' feelings that he should have died instead of Ignatz.

Another example is that the story is illustrated in monochrome shades of primary colors. The flashbacks are blue when it's Asterios alone, and red when they include Hana, while the present-day story is told in shades of yellow. As the story concludes, and moves into the immediate present it suddenly combines the three colors, bringing both the narrative and the color scheme into harmony. Similarly he draws Asterios with strong, bold outlines, often including his ghostly brother as a dotted line, while Hana and her life is sketched in uncertainty. I especially liked the mysterious spotlight that comes and goes out of frame in synch with Hana's self-esteem.

If I had one complaint about the story, it's that the resolution felt hurried, and the final pages throw in a curveball that feels like a beanball. I would have preferred an ending that stretched out the resolution by another 20 or 30 pages, maybe adding some internal hurdles for Asterios to leap. And while the final page isn't completely out of the blue, it was too contrived for me. Just let me say that they lived happily ever after.

My 12 year-old son read the book as well, and his comment was: "Ok, a bit heavy on the philosophizin' and art theory." I'd put the book down as a PG-13 rating. The graphics and story are great, as well as the printing. This book has been on everyone's top 10 list for 2009 graphic novels, and I'd say it's a good bet it will stay there. Mazzuchelli's previous work City of Glass (with writer Paul Karasik) was chosen as the quintessential New York graphic novel. You can buy this book online at Amazon through the links below, or at Powell's Books.

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Astro Boy Movie trailer now online

The trailer for the new Astro Boy movie is online. It looks a lot better than the disappointing four-issue movie prequel from IDW Publishing. The animation is in the same vein as Jimmy Neutron, although it looks less annoying, more aesthetically pleasing. The movie comes out 10/23/09.

From the trailer it looks like they tried to continue with the themes Osamu Tezuka's often addressed in the original Astro Boy manga, questions such as: "What makes us human?", "Where is the soul?" and whether the human race can reconcile differences and live in harmony rather than continually fight for power and control over others?
When I was a kid I only got a small glimpse into the Astro Boy world because most of the stories had never been translated, but thanks to Dark Horse Comics you can now get the full suite of Tezuka's books in English.
Purchase them online at Amazon.com, or Powell's books.

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