Tag Archives: winter 2006


B. H. Fingerman
M Press ($12.95)

by Jessica Bennett

We're all familiar with the legions of sexy, forever-young, brooding vampires that have dominated vampire fiction from Bram Stoker to Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Well, being immortal loses some of its appeal when you've got to spend eternity working in a cubicle and dining on the dregs of humanity. B. H. Fingerman—better known as Bob Fingerman, the disturbingly, delightfully dead-on comics artist behind the acclaimed chronicles of hipster New York, Minimum Wage and Beg the Question—here explores what happens when the undead are unglamorous, and the results are morbid and droll.

Phil Merman is a reluctant vampire, so guilt-ridden over his need to feast on human blood that he limits his diet to vagrants and criminals in the hope that he'll minimize his impact on society. He lives in a drab Brooklyn apartment, works a tedious job cataloging news photos (the graveyard shift, natch), and rues the day he became a creature of the night. Initially, he tried to hide his vampirism, but his marriage fell apart soon after he was turned in 1974, and his parents grew suspicious of his agelessness before their deaths; his only friend, and his sole remaining connection to his old life, is a swishy, pathetic drunkard named Shelley who makes the occasional inebriated pass at Phil in between sordid stories of his (likely imaginary) girlfriends.

Things change when Phil makes a new friend in Eddie, a fellow vampire he meets while on the hunt. As Eddie begins to introduce him to others of their kind, Phil begins to question his solitary life and embrace his identity as a bloodsucker. He enters a new underworld of vampires from all walks of life—the rich and decadent as well as relative good Samaritans. Realizing that his distaste for the depravity which comes with being undead is a bit of hypocritical reverse-snobbery, not to mention self-loathing, he begins to let loose and, for want of a better word, live.

Fingerman does a fantastic job fleshing out the details of Phil's life through a first-person narrative filled with self-deprecation, endearingly peppered with groan-worthy Catskills-comedian one-liners, and entirely blasé throughout about the gore. And gore there is—the accounts of feedings, coming as they do in such an ordinary voice, often have a stomach-twisting power sometimes muted in more gothic depictions of the macabre.

The story is compelling and Phil is an endearing character. In fact, he's such a sad sack, the reader may find herself wishing he would just go out, enjoy a nice meal, and stop beating himself up about it, already. Unfortunately, the mystery itself falls a bit flat (as does the Catskills schtick at times) when Phil's somewhat unsurprising sire is revealed, but no matter— Fingerman rescues the ending and manages to wrap things up with gruesome panache. Ultimately, Bottomfeeder is a tasty morsel and a welcome antidote to the velvet-draped world of predictable vampire fiction.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2006-2007 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2006-2007


Fumiko Hayashi
Translated by Lane Dunlop
Columbia University Press ($27.50)

by Scott Bryan Wilson

In November 2005, I saw all thirty-one films in a Mikio Naruse retrospective—among them his 1955 film Floating Clouds, one of many adaptations he did of Fumiko Hayashi's novels. Until recently, very much like Naruse's films, Hayashi's work was impossible to find in an English translation. Luckily, Columbia University Press has published this late novel, a bleak romance which examines the lives of lonely Japanese in the wake of the atomic bomb.

Floating Clouds is the story of two on-and-off lovers who meet in French Indochina near the end of World War II. A forestry official named Tomioka, a married man who regularly cheats on his wife, is pursued by Yukiko, a secretary in his office who fled Japan to escape the daily rapes by her landlord. From Vietnam to Tokyo to tiny towns to a small nearly uninhabited island, the novel follows their intermittent meetings through the years, first as refugees, then as repatriates, and finally as Japanese who can't feel at home even in their own country.

This is not, however, a typical romance story, for it is driven by despair. (Even Naruse, who's often accused of a nihilistic outlook, struggles to encompass Floating Clouds' huge range of misery in the film version.) As Tomioka takes on new lovers and eludes Yukiko, Yukiko lives in a shack, always holding out hope that one day she and Tomioka will be together. In many ways, they're perfect for each other: Yukiko is clingy, lonely, needy, poor, and desperate, while Tomioka is selfish, cold, needy, poor, and thoughtless. They never really seem happy when they're together, but when they're apart they're just as unhappy: forced to eke out existence in poverty and squalid conditions, their lives are filled with alcoholism, cruelty, sickness, murder, death, depression, violence, endless talk of suicide, and foul weather.

Tomioka, whose "selfish heart . . . heaped new sins upon the old" looks for happiness in every woman he meets who isn't his wife or Yukiko: a Vietnamese maid whom he impregnates, a juvenile delinquent, a barmaid named Seiko whom he seduces when Yukiko isn't looking. He fantasizes about others. Yukiko, somewhat more faithful to Tomioka, starts working for the religion her rapist ex-landlord co-founds, The Great Sunshine Religion, which exists to fleece believers out of their money.

This is a world in which characters survive by selling possessions, turning to illegal activities, and doing without. Dreams of long-term plans bearing fruit are crushed by the realities of postwar Japan. Throughout all of this Yukiko and Tomioka do their dance, continually breaking up yet always staying together. Tomioka, staring out at the miserable weather with Yukiko crying beside him, wonders "How long would this woman torment him, like a moneylender harassing a debtor, with the memories of the past?" Neither can find their own way in life after returning to Japan, unable to break free of the endless cycle of poverty and alcoholism.

In short chapters, Hayashi masterfully switches point of view between Yukiko and Tomioka, and writes with a restraint which doesn't sensationalize or sentimentalize her novel's brutality. The novel doesn't relish its own gloom. The repetition and plotlessness only underscore the always-uncertain future of its protagonists. It's a remarkable book, and hopefully it will herald more translations of Hayashi's work.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2006-2007 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2006-2007


Jesse Ball and Thordis Björnsdottir
Nýhil ($20)

by Laird Hunt

And out went Vera and Linus with a large knife and a bag, for hunting children's hands.

There is probably no better place to begin a brief comment on this strangely sexy, agreeably scary collaborative compendium than with the above image of its two protagonists gaily heading out to do a little hand collecting, for these two mysterious beings, carved straight out of the space of fairy tale—Hansel and Gretel all grown up with a shed full of axes to grind—never tire of the simple pleasures of killing, collecting, burning, maiming and holding captive. Nor do they limit their murderous attentions to those outside of their heinous, happy twosome:

Linus picked Vera up.

He took her and plunged her head in water.

—Have a little death, he said. For I am to bake a pie tonight and there must be death in the house.

Vera, of course, pops right back up to star in more than her share of subsequent episodes, just as Linus's hand quickly heals from the gouge Vera cuts in it, which makes good sense, because the territory Ball and Björnsdottir chart here is one in which death definitely has no dominion (even the protruding hand of a child they have buried alive during one of their jags remains warm months later); rather, a kind of low-stakes, light-hearted cruelty does. Indeed, over and over again the distant, twisted Neverneverland of quiet childhoods is called to mind as one reads, that space where one might lay siege to an ant colony with a magnifying glass, pretend to kill a couple hundred bad guys with a dream Uzi, lock a favorite doll up in the closet, then cackle about it all with a friend over a glass of chocolate milk. Childhood has never looked better and worse: Proust's lost paradise re-envisioned as a kind of tender hell.

For all its pleasures, Vera & Linus could have stood a bit of pruning, in particular in some of its longer pieces. Still, on the whole this handsome, pocket-sized, illustrated and indexed cross between the Brothers Grimm, Marquis de Sade, Peter Pan and Georges Perec is a great success.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2006-2007 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2006-2007

POSTCARD FROM ROME: Shakespeare King of Naples at the Teatro Furio Camillo

by Linda Lappin

Two Neapolitan clowns, the king of Naples, a shipwreck, an alchemist, and a trunk full of waterlogged pages—sound familiar? Shakespeare's Tempest, you might think, but in this case the "drowned book" is not Prospero's magic tome, but an original manuscript of Shakespeare's sonnets. In his brilliant, fanciful, and deeply moving play "Shakespeare King of Naples," Ruggero Cappuccio, Neapolitan poet and playwright, imagines the untold story of W.H., the "fair youth" to whom Shakespeare dedicated the world's most celebrated sonnet sequence.

For centuries literary detectives have tried to trace the identity of this mysterious person, defined by Shakespeare as his "good angel." Two possible candidates for "W.H." include the Earl of Southampton and the Earl of Pembroke. Another possibility is that the sonnets are addressed to "Will Himself," i.e. Shakespeare. Oscar Wilde, among others, suggested that W.H. was Willie Hughs, a boy actor at the Globe.

In Cappuccio's fable, W.H. is a Neapolitan actor, "Desiderio," whose name, in Elizabethan English, could have been translated as "Will"; "H" stands for "Heart" as in "Will of my Heart." When Shakespeare comes to Naples, having heard that the people there "have theater in their blood," he discovers Desiderio and is so taken with his performance that he whisks him off to London, where he becomes one of the Globe's greatest interpreters of female roles. Years later, stricken by the plague, Desiderio returns home to Naples, bearing testimony to his privileged status as a famous actor: a letter from Shakespeare, a ring, and a trunk containing a manuscript of poems penned by the bard himself. Desiderio's ship is lost en route to Naples. He is the sole survivor, and nothing is salvaged but the manuscript floating in a trunk full of water.

Cappuccio's play, which first debuted in 1994, returned this winter to the Roman stage at the Teatro Furio Camillo. (The text has recently been published by Einaudi and a film is in the works.) The play interweaves roughhouse clowning, ribald anecdote, gripping suspense, and high lyricism in a unique fusion of Elizabethan drama with the great baroque theater tradition of Naples. These two worlds, as Shakespeare well knew, had many things in common: earthy humor, love of masquerade, a passion for poetry, and a conviction that "all the world's a stage," people "merely players." It's worth learning a little Neapolitan to appreciate the author's ingenious recasting of Shakespeare's sonnets into one of Italy's most musical dialects.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2006-2007 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2006-2007


First Journals and Poems 1937 - 1952
Allen Ginsberg
Edited by Bill Morgan and Juanita Lieberman-Plimpton
Da Capo Press ($27.50)

The Battle for Free Expression
Edited by Bill Morgan and Nancy J. Peters
City Lights ($14.95)

The Somewhat Private Life of Allen Ginsberg
Bill Morgan
Viking ($29.95)

by Christopher Luna

Recently several books have been published which illuminate the life and work of Allen Ginsberg, the best-known poet of the 20th century. The year 2006 was the 50th anniversary of the publication of Ginsberg's "Howl," the work that changed the face of poetry, made the poet famous, and led to the establishment of City Lights as one of the country's most important publishing houses. Ginsberg was out of the country when the censorship trial over "Howl" took place, and according to I Celebrate Myself, Bill Morgan's new biography of the poet, remained slightly detached from the controversy that made the book such a hit. In March 1957 a San Francisco customs agent seized a number of copies of the City Lights paperback Howl and Other Poems "on the grounds that the writing [was] obscene." Both the clerk who sold the book, Shigeyoshi Murao, and the publisher, poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, were arrested. Judge Clayton Horn, who would later preside over comedian Lenny Bruce's obscenity trial, eventually decided that the book was not obscene.

Typically, the media attention translated into sales, and Howl and Other Poems went on to sell many thousands of copies. Ginsberg did not think that "Howl" was his best work, but he undoubtedly benefited from the fame that it brought him. Ginsberg was more than just an influential poet; he was also an icon of the Beat Generation and the counterculture who had a hand in nearly all of the social changes that took place in America in the 1950s, '60s, and '70s: the antiwar and anti-nuclear movements; the psychedelic revolution; gay rights; free speech; and the spread of Buddhism as a viable system of belief in the West.

Howl on Trial: The Battle for Free Expression, edited by Ginsberg archivist Bill Morgan and City Lights publisher Nancy J. Peters, gathers many of the primary documents related to the case, including the full text of the poem, correspondence, facsimile news accounts, and excerpts from the trial transcripts. The book also includes several essays on the cultural context of the trial and its impact on the culture from Ferlinghetti, Morgan, Peters, and others.

The newspaper accounts and trial transcripts are particularly useful as a way to understand the differences in the attitudes and "community standards" of post-World War II Americans. For example, there are letters to the editor of the San Francisco Chronicle from April 1957 written both by those who support free speech and those who are willing to believe, sight unseen, that Ginsberg's work is obscene.

The correspondence includes a heroic letter to fellow poet John Hollander defending "Howl" and explaining its meaning in great detail. Ginsberg tells Hollander that the key to his method of "keeping a long line still all poetic and not prosy is the concentration and compression of basically imagistic notations into surrealist or cubist phrasing, like hydrogen jukeboxes" and the "elimination of prosy articles and syntactical sawdust." As the letter comes to a close, Ginsberg's frustration with his critics reaches a breaking point: "All this is built like a brick shithouse and anybody can't hear the music . . . [has] got a tin ear, . . . I get sick and tired I read 50 reviews of Howl and not one of them written by anyone with enough technical interests to notice the fucking obvious construction of the poem."

There are also funny letters by Gregory Corso, including a letter to Ferlinghetti in which he warns him against becoming known as a peddler of "dirty books." Corso finally tells Ferlinghetti, "Seriously, I think that you are perhaps the only great publisher in America and will have to suffer for it." Ginsberg remained loyal to Ferlinghetti, steadfastly refusing to "go whoring in NY," despite many offers from larger publishers. He also encouraged Ferlinghetti to publish his friends, convinced that they were the best writers of their generation. In a letter to Ferlinghetti (dated October 10, 1957) written after the decision, Ginsberg states: "If you follow Corso with Kerouac and Burroughs you'll have the most sensational little company in the U.S., I wish you would dig that, anyway; we could all together crash over America in a great wave of beauty. And cash. But do you think you can sell 5,000 more actually? How mad." Today there are nearly 1,000,000 copies of Howl and Other Poems in print.

Reading the trial transcripts, one is astounded by the complete lack of literary knowledge exhibited by many of those involved. Censorship trials are necessarily surreal affairs, as when Deputy District Attorney Ralph McIntosh asks a witness whether the word "snatches" is "relevant to Mr. Ginsberg's literary endeavor." Fortunately, Kenneth Rexroth saves the day, declaring "Howl" to be "the most remarkable single poem, published by a young man since the second war." He correctly labels the poem a "prophetic" piece of literature which is a "denunciation of evil" and "an affirmation of the possibility of being a whole man." Clayton, who had a reputation as a conservative-minded judge, rightfully refused to hear arguments about individual words taken out of context, and found in favor of the defendants.

Lest one think of the trial as a quaint signpost of the past, Morgan concludes the book with an essay about the ongoing battle for free speech. Even today, years after the trial and Ginsberg's acceptance as a literary giant, "the question of 'Howl's' alleged 'indecency' is still unresolved," and the FCC continues to stifle free speech at every turn. "Howl," considered by many to be one of the most important poems of the 20th century, remains a potentially problematic choice for radio broadcasters.

The Book of Martyrdom and Artifice, edited by Morgan and Juanita Lieberman-Plimpton, features Ginsberg's early journals and poems, some from as early as 1937, when the poet was only eleven years old. Sixty-five of the 100 poems included in this volume have never been published before. Young writers may want to crib Ginsberg's reading lists. He also includes many descriptions of his dreams and recalls his thoughts about Carl Solomon, the fellow poet he met in a psychiatric institution and to whom he dedicated "Howl."

Those interested in the work of Beat Generation writers such as Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs will treasure these early recollections of the time they spent together when Ginsberg was a student at Columbia University. Ginsberg was a self-described "fledgling" at the time and had not yet come to terms with his homosexuality. It is fascinating to read his thoughts as he stumbles toward adulthood and begins to discover his poetic voice.

Many of the sentiments expressed will be familiar to anyone who has ever been a teenager; often the entries resemble the overheated, melodramatic scribble of any college student. On the other hand, there is no question that the young man whose life is recorded here was destined for greatness; indeed, he seemed to be aware of this himself. In an entry from May 1941, when he was still a student in high school, Ginsberg writes:

I am writing to satisfy my egotism. If some future historian or biographer wants to know what the genius thought and did in his tender years, here it is. I'll be a genius of some kind or other, probably in literature. I really believe it. (Not naively, as whoever reads this is thinking.) I have a fair degree of confidence in myself. Either I'm a genius, I'm egocentric, or I'm slightly schizophrenic. Probably the first two.

The journals include notes for an uncompleted novel that fictionalized the murder of David Kammerer by Lucien Carr, which provides a taste of what it might have been like if Ginsberg had chronicled their lives in the same way that Kerouac did. There are also interesting transcripts of conversations with Carr, often about the purpose of art. Although Carr considered himself a writer, he seldom wrote anything and did not see the point in sharing his "art" with others. Ginsberg felt that what distinguished an artist from the "self-expressive obscurantist" was the "fact that his creation enriches other artists and spurs them to communicate. Thus, accepting the morality of creation and waste, it is wasteful for the artist to chant his poems to the wandering winds or live his art, and not record it. The uncommunicative artist's value is lost to all but himself."

Morgan's I Celebrate Myself: The Somewhat Private Life of Allen Ginsberg benefits from the author's "unlimited access" to the poet's journals. As Ginsberg's archivist and bibliographer, Morgan is the person most familiar with the notebooks in which the poet recorded his thoughts, dreams, and fantasies. Although Ginsberg always allowed scholars access to his journals, in his foreword Morgan admits to being "sometimes . . . egotistical enough to believe that I'm the only person to ever have read everything Allen ever wrote." Ginsberg eventually learned to mine his journals for material; I Celebrate Myself ably demonstrates the relationship between the journals and the final product. This approach also lends itself to a more personal, psychological portrait of the poet than previous biographies.

In addition, throughout the text Morgan has included the page numbers where individual poems can be found in the recently released update of Ginsberg's collected poems, making it possible for scholars and fans to read the poems after having been told how and why they were written.

In an email interview with Rain Taxi, Morgan recalled how he became Ginsberg's archivist: "In the late 1960s I began working on a bibliography of Lawrence Ferlinghetti's work as a college paper. When the professor suggested that they (the University of Pittsburgh Press) publish it, I wrote to Ferlinghetti and asked him a few questions. He invited me out to San Francisco and I began what was to become a ten-year project of compiling a descriptive bibliography of his writing. During the course of that work Lawrence and I became friends and when I needed to see some very scarce publications, he suggested I ask Allen Ginsberg, since his archive was enormous and better than any library's. That led me to meet Allen, since he was generous enough to allow me access to his collection, and when I moved to New York City in the late 1970s I began working on a two-volume bibliography of his work (Greenwood Press) and became his archivist." Eventually Morgan "saw him every day as I worked in his apartment/office and became one of the many members of Ginsberg's cottage industry."

I Celebrate Myself focuses more on Ginsberg's childhood than previous books, and while this is a welcome approach, the chapters that describe the last thirty years of his life seem very short. As Morgan told Rain Taxi, "The biggest challenge was to cram Allen's very full life into one volume. As usual, the publisher was not interested in a two- or three-volume biography, which is really what is needed to cover a life like Ginsberg's. So much had to be left out that the challenge was to limit the coverage, not expand it." According to Morgan, he was not "trying to say that the later years were less important, but the book would have ended up being 900 pages and no one would have been able to pick it up, let alone read it."

One theme of this biography is the daily grind that the poet endured, rarely catching a moment of rest from the time that "Howl" became a hit until his death four decades later. Ginsberg constantly traveled across the globe to read his poetry and contribute his time and energy to various political struggles. Because many of Ginsberg's final years were "spent traveling from reading to reading to conference to workshop, etc.," Morgan "tried to attend to his private life and that made those more public events less important."

Morgan describes Allen Ginsberg as a "true American hero" and a "citizen of the world" whose ideas about democracy were based on his deep understanding of Walt Whitman's life and poetry:

Recurrent themes [in Ginsberg's life story] are his unfulfilled desire to be loved by others and his search for a love of self, which I think he did come close to achieving in the end. His self-love was not wholly narcissistic. Theoretically Allen was able to trace his ability to love directly back to Walt Whitman. . . . Whitman's lesson to Allen was that it is possible to forgive another and love another only after you forgive and love yourself. That was the underlying reason why he felt that Whitman was so important to the American psyche. Whitman had accepted himself and from that flowed an acceptance of all things. Allen believed that Walt Whitman was the first American poet to take action in recognizing his individuality, forgiving and accepting himself, and automatically extending that recognition and acceptance to all other selves.

Ginsberg wrote that it was ego rather than mere "self-expression" that was the "true cause of permanent art."

I Celebrate Myself is also the story of Ginsberg's unending generosity. Early on he rejected the notion of accepting money for personal gain. Much of the money he made from reading poetry went into the Committee on Poetry, a non-profit organization he founded to help other poets in need. Not only was Ginsberg willing to tirelessly promote the work of himself and his friends, but he also supported them financially. Gregory Corso, Herbert Huncke, and Harry Smith were among those who accepted Ginsberg's assistance.

The book is also about the damage that drugs and mental illness can do to people's lives. Morgan suggests that Ginsberg looked the other way when it came to his friends' drug abuse; in the case of his life partner Peter Orlovsky's habit, Ginsberg seemed to be in denial. Some of the saddest moments in the book depict Orlovsky's decline into madness, and the difficulty that Ginsberg had letting go, however necessary their split may have been.

Allen Ginsberg withheld very few of the personal details of his life from the public. In fact, he made a practice of being candid, famously stating, "Candor ends paranoia." Asked to recount any surprises to come from his research, Morgan points to his discovery "that when Allen was only 21 years old, the doctors asked him to sign the release papers allowing them to perform a prefrontal lobotomy on his mother, Naomi. (His father and mother were divorced by this time, so Allen was Naomi's closest living relative). He put his faith in the doctors and signed their request form, which I'm certain he regretted for the rest of her life, for in fact the operation did not help her or stop her suffering." Ginsberg's childhood experiences dealing with his mother's illness, and his guilt over her treatment and death, became the subject of what many consider his greatest poem, "Kaddish."

Ginsberg was also very generous with his many admirers. He had a way of focusing in on the person he was conversing with, no matter what chaos may have been going on around him. In the book, Morgan describes an encounter that Ginsberg had with the photographer Edward Weston in 1956 after which he "resolved to be equally generous with his time with young fans in the future." In Morgan's opinion, "More than anything else, I think he was unique because he took the time to be interested in everyone he ever met." I found this to be true of the few encounters I had with the poet, including a brief conversation during the tribute to Ginsberg which was part of the 20th anniversary of the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa University, the Buddhist college in Boulder, Colorado, that Ginsberg founded with Anne Waldman and Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche in 1974. Ginsberg made me feel as if I was the only person there, despite the throngs of friends and fans standing all around us waiting for their turn. I count myself among the many that were fortunate enough to have shared a moment or two with the poet who changed my life.

Morgan's biography is an important addition to the literature on Ginsberg; here's hoping that someone will write that multi-volume version of his life story someday.

Click here to purchase The Book of Martyrdom and Artifice at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Click here to buy The Book of Martyrdom and Artifice from Powells.com

Click here to purchase Howl on Trial at your local independent bookstore
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Click here to purchase I Celebrate Myself at your local independent bookstore
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Click here to buy I Celebrate Myself from Powells.com

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2006-2007 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2006-2007

Making Comics and Communities:The Influence of Scott McCloud

By William Alexander

If Comics were a country, Scott McCloud would be that country's representative to the United Nations. He would sit in a blue chair, wearing his red Zot! T-shirt and his green flannel, and he would consider matters of global and aesthetic importance behind those huge, round eyeglasses.

McCloud's comics persona has narrated three nonfiction works about his chosen art form. His authoritative tomes Understanding Comics (1993) and Reinventing Comics (2000) lay out the history, mechanics, and possibilities of sequential art, and they are widely considered to be the most accessible and comprehensive works of comics theory to date.

McCloud's third volume, Making Comics: Storytelling Secrets of Comics, Manga and Graphic Novels (Harper, $22.95) gestures at wider topics, referring to the history, theory, and new possibilities for the art form, but for the most part focusing on specific techniques of comics creation.

This is actually a lot of fun, and not just for aspiring comics artists. The book is filled with useful details about tools and techniques (and diagrams, lots of diagrams), but it feels more like a privileged backstage tour than a technical manual.

One reason for this wide appeal is simply charm; McCloud's cartoon-self is as entertaining as he is authoritative, and parts of the book are just laugh-out-loud funny. Another reason is that these "storytelling secrets" are germane beyond the genres in question: any creative writing instructor can use this book to illustrate (literally) individual skills like character creation, scene transition, and the trade-off between narrative clarity and pyrotechnic intensity, even if their students are playwrights and epic poets rather than comics makers. Actors can also benefit from McCloud's description of adult emotions and the extent to which we suppress them. In context, this bit of the book is aimed at artists attempting to draw characters in deeply emotional circumstances, but the lesson is still widely applicable; the best way to cry onstage is to try very hard not to.

There is, of course, plenty of specificity to balance out this wide appeal. McCloud devotes many pages to frame choices, facial musculature, and the use of digital and traditional drawing tools. Any dedicated comics artist will not be disappointed. But you don't have to make comics (or plays, or epic poems) to enjoy this book. You just have to like reading them.

Let the reader beware, however; this is where McCloud's charm becomes subversive. He doesn't draw much of a distinction between comics readers and comics makers (writers and artists). It's as though the making were just a very active way of reading. The result is that any given reader of Making Comics is likely to put pen to paper herself.

We interviewed two young artists about the effect and influence of Making Comics on their chosen craft. Both are graduate students at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. Michael Sgier is a printmaker who illustrated his own fiction as a part of his BFA degree, and has recently begun to focus exclusively on comics making. Some of Mike's work is posted online, and printing fees from one of last year's projects continue to haunt his credit card statement. He isn't yet wedded to any particular genre, but his copy of Making Comics is already battered and worn.

"I keep the two-page spread of facial expressions taped above my drafting table, in the studio," he says. "It's been a huge help." But more important than McCloud's technical influence is his ability to inspire.

Chapter 4 of Making Comics encouraged Mike to tackle world-building, the practice of creating detailed backdrops in which to immerse the primary action of a comic. "It's labor intensive," he says, sighing. "Instead of getting on with the story, you spend days and days trying to make the buildings in the background perfect. But I want my worlds to be vivid. European artists like Moebius (Jean Giraud) were doing this decades ago, but you still don't see enough of it in American comics."

There is another kind of world that Scott McCloud is currently building—or discovering, or possibly reinventing. Part of his work as Ambassador of the Comics Nation has been to foster a sense of community and inclusiveness among the makers—and potential makers.

"He keeps up to speed with a very big world," Mike says. "I read his family's livejournal for the big Fifty-State book tour, and they interview all sorts of good people along the way." Sky and Winter, the McCloud daughters, web-cast some pretty adorable "Winterviews" with comics artists. "His enthusiasm is contagious, and he never condescends. He jokes about the difficulties, but there's no scolding in his books. He doesn't go on about how we'll probably fail, and that we'll be poor and starving. We don't need to be told that. We already know."

Ursula Murray Husted agrees, and she can back this up with personal experience; she took a course with McCloud last summer, and learned much of the material in Making Comics before the book was actually published. "Scott is very approachable in person," Ursula says, "and very generous to young creators. That carries over into his comics personae. He's approachable, and he's honest in a way that doesn't break you." She pauses, and laughs. "He's also an icon. His cartoon-self is a trusted, familiar figure."

McCloud's Understanding Comics had a more profound effect on Ursula than the new book; she's already one of the converted. "I was twelve when I started reading graphic novels in the Madison public library—which is a great library, and I ditched a lot of school to just hide out there—but it never occurred to me that I could draw comics until ten years later. Comic book makers were golden gods. I never really knew that they were people, and walked among us." As an undergraduate, Ursula initially focused on stagecraft rather than comics. "I always thought I would do theater. It took a long time to realize that I could tell stories, just myself. Scott helped. Understanding Comics kind of blew my head apart. He can turn comics readers into comics makers."

In the second-to-last chapter of Making Comics, McCloud suggests that comics creators tend to cluster around one of four artistic philosophies, or "campfires." He dubs them the Classicists, Animists, Formalists and Iconoclasts, and defines each camp with obvious care and diplomacy. It would be reductive, and probably misleading, for me to sum up the different philosophies here, but I am going to do it anyway: Classicists are dedicated to visual craft, the Animists to storytelling, the Formalists to experimental craft, and the Iconoclasts to experimental storytelling.

"Scott showed us the idea last summer," Ursula says. "It was before the book came out. We immediately tried to put ourselves in the diagram, and people started saying things like 'Hey look, I'm a Formalist!' Scott kind of panicked. 'Don't do this to yourself!' he told us. 'Don't box yourself in!' He was really afraid that it would be divisive."

If anything, the campfire idea has actually drawn the venom out of ongoing feuds. Ursula tells a story about one such reconciliation between two classmates.

"One drew like an angel (a Classicist), and the other told intensely personal and raw stories (an Iconoclast). They hated each other. But once they established their differing campfire loyalties it all smoothed out. They just said 'Oh, that's why we don't get along!' and stopped trying to convert each other. They're perfectly good friends now.

"We're an ecosystem. We need wild experimentation and traditional perfectionists. We need each other, even if we aren't always on speaking terms.

"The thing that's really brilliant about Scott McCloud is that, even when he isn't inventing something new, he's translating for us, coming up with a new way to express what we've already been doing—and didn't necessarily know we were doing, not until he told us so.

"He's our best ambassador to the rest of the world."

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Click here to buy Making Comics from Powells.com

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2006-2007 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2006-2007


by Jeanie Chung

Gina Frangello knows the fiction industry from all sides: as a writer, executive editor of the fiction magazine Other Voices and founder and executive editor of OV Books, an imprint specializing in short story collections. Her first novel, My Sister's Continent (Chiasmus, 2006), is a contemporary retelling of Freud's case history of "Dora," a so-called hysteric. The novel, set in modern-day Chicago, tells the story of Kendra Braun, a former ballerina with a self-destructive streak, who enters a physically and psychologically harrowing relationship with Michael Kelsey, a friend of her father's. The book also follows Kendra's twin sister Kirby, who is not-so-happily engaged and in psychotherapy for Irritable Bowel Syndrome. The book is written as Kirby's extended response to her therapist's analysis of the Braun family. Frangello's short fiction has appeared in StoryQuarterlySwinktwo girls review and Prairie Schooner, among others. She lives in Chicago with her husband and children.

Jeanie Chung: My Sister's Continent grew out of your own early background as a therapist. What was the nature of your work?

Gina Frangello: I started out working at a battered women's agency in rural New Hampshire as an intern, and running groups there, seeing private clients. The following year, I started a women's wellness center at a hospital in Vermont. It's a prison town, so the center served a lot of low-income women with pretty graphic lives. The following year I worked for a private foster care agency with sexually abused foster girls who were taken out of their homes.

JC: So you drew from some of those experiences in writing the novel?

GF: It was an area of interest already, when I went into that line of work. I had grown up in a fairly violent neighborhood in Chicago. It's very different now, but my cousin was murdered there a few years ago, actually, so there still are aspects of what it was like when I was growing up. It was very gang-y. There's probably the same amount of abuse in any kind of neighborhood, but it was the kind of place where it was so patriarchal that it was not even something people felt all that compelled to hide. Kids would come to school with bruises and no one said anything. Once a girl was raped in my neighborhood and people rushed to the defense of the men who had done it; everybody took the attitude of "she deserved it," so my old neighborhood affected my decision to work with the population I later served. My experiences as a counselor started fueling a lot of the ideas behind My Sister's Continent. The version that I first started writing, in 1993, was a lot more influenced by my work as a therapist than the version that was eventually published.

JC: I don't want you to take this the wrong way, but you worked as a counselor with women for whom you were doing a great service, obviously. And then, you stopped doing that to sit in a room all day to feed your muse. Did you feel guilty?

GF: Oh, yes. Oh, yes. At first I didn't because the work could get scary and crazy. I used to take women to get restraining orders at the battered women's agency, and a lot of times their husbands would know who I was. They'd say, "I'm gonna kill that bitch! I know what her car looks like!" We'd have bomb threats when we had groups at the center. And I was young when I started doing this work—I was 22, right out of college. It definitely makes you old before your time. So at first when I moved back to Chicago to devote myself to graduate school and writing full-time, I was really thrilled to focus on things in my mind, to process a lot of the issues I'd been dealing with the past few years as well as in my neighborhood growing up. However, ultimately, yes, over the long haul—I haven't worked as a therapist since 1994—there are a lot of times when I think to myself, particularly before the book came out: What am I really doing? What am I really contributing? Who am I really helping? Am I wasting my time and everyone else's time? Other Voices helps me stave that off, though arguably, running a literary magazine—it is a service, and I do it for free, but at the same time, you're not saving anybody's life by getting them out of a violent marriage that's likely to kill them in a year.

You can always argue that literature can be viewed as self-indulgent, even though, ultimately, I really believe it is not, that it's really vital. I also believe that literacy and the things that literacy contributes to the human soul are in great danger in this country. So when I think of it in those terms, I definitely don't think it's self-indulgent to be a writer or an editor.

JC: You said the novel grew out of some short stories you were writing about the two families, the Kelseys and the Brauns. What was it like merging the stories into a novel?

GF: That was interesting because most of the short stories were first person from Kendra's point of view, and a couple of them were third person from Michael's point of view. They all more or less dealt with the aftermath of this relationship between Kendra and Michael, which was somewhat different than the original version but could still be categorized as an S/M relationship that had, in some ways, left both people wondering who they were and left them both shaken.

I started trying to compile them into a novel in stories, but even though the individual stories had done really well, when I first put them all together, people's reactions were, "Oh my God, I'm going to kill myself. I can't read all these stories in a row like this; it's really claustrophobic." The intensity of Kendra's self-destructiveness and her voice, it freaked people out. And this was in the '90s, when freaking people out was not viewed as the bad thing it is today! So it made me think more about giving the reader another guide through the story.

In the original novel I had tried to write about these sisters, Kirby had played a key role, but then she had receded in the stories. She was occasionally mentioned—I think she's only in one of the published stories. I decided to resuscitate Kirby and bring her in as the overarching narrator of the novel and tell Kendra's sections in third person to give the reader—and myself as the writer—a little bit more distance and a little bit more objectivity. But I didn't merge the stories and the novel very much. It was the same people, some of the same relationship dynamics, but it all started fresh when I decided to use the "Dora" framework.

JC: I really liked that aspect of it, the reimagining of the Freud case study. Tell me how that happened.

GF: I was teaching a class that I created called "The Hysterics in Literature;" I was interested in merging some of my background as a counselor with what I was learning in graduate school. I was studying French feminist theory—l'écriture féminine, writing the body—and I wanted to do a class that had a synthesis of psychology and literature. We were doing some of the French feminist theorists, but I taught the Freud case study as the introductory text—I taught it as a novella. Then, we went on to things like King LearRagtime, a whole bunch of novels that had hysterical characters. I had read the case study before but not as carefully and closely as I read it when teaching it. And I was just blown away by the similarities between the families in Freud's study and the families I had been writing about: the Brauns and the Kelseys.

JC: At that point, were you still actively writing about the Brauns and the Kelseys?

GF: I had stopped about a year prior, and was working on another novel. Then, I was overcome and swept back into that world, basically realizing how little has changed in terms of certain dynamics in families, certain dynamics of what it is to be a young woman coming of age.

I was also very interested in the way that the French feminists had interpreted Dora. I love Hélène Cixous and all those people and read them pretty voraciously in graduate school. But at the same time, because I had worked with battered women and sexual abuse survivors, women who had addiction problems, a lot of physical ailments, eating disorders—women who might be viewed as contemporary hysterics—I was a little bit taken aback by the way that feminist theorists were glamorizing hysteria, saying, "the hysterics are my sisters! They tried to thwart the patriarchy! They were rebels!" And I kept thinking to myself, no, really, they were women who were suffering enormously, physically, who were taken advantage of by the system, who usually had absolutely no concept of thwarting anything. They may have been angrier or more unsettled by the lives of women than their contemporaries were, and that may have contributed to their symptoms. But it led nowhere, except to their own misery.

So I was just interested in the dialogue that Old World psychoanalysis and contemporary feminist psychology and literary theory were having with one another: this unease between the two positions. I wanted to write something that was going to tackle both positions and let them debate each other in a fictional forum.

JC: Wow, those are some big ideas, but the novel doesn't come across as didactic at all.

GF: Thank you. I think that it would've been incredibly easy to fall into that trap if I hadn't already been working with these characters for about five years. It's fun stuff to talk about in an interview, it's fun to write about in your acknowledgements, but the fact of the matter is that I was really obsessed with these characters, and I had been for some time. As I think is true for many writers, they were more real to me at times than the people in my actual life were. So, while I did have a lot of these ideas, and I followed the case study in terms of some elements of structure and some elements of plot and ideas, I got as caught up in the characters' lives as I possibly could have been, and I was not sitting around thinking, "What would Freud say? What would Hélène Cixous say?" I was just thinking, "What would Kirby say? What would Kendra say?"

Also, I should say that my model of what I wanted to do was very similar to what Jane Smiley had done in A Thousand Acres, where she's retelling King Lear, but you don't ever have to have read Shakespeare to read that book. Obviously, much more so than not having read Shakespeare, I would have been in real trouble if I had expected people to have read Freud's obscure case studies in order to read my novel.

JC: Many people have said writing or storytelling is a form of therapy, but had you thought about the idea of therapy as a form of storytelling? Kirby has her version of events. Dr. Friedland has her version. Kendra has a version, but Kirby's the one who tells it to us. What you essentially have is competing narrators, all with varying degrees of reliability.

GF: Therapy is storytelling, of course. We all, in life or literature, have our own versions of truth. Kirby lies explicitly to Dr. Friedland at times, and she lies to Aris, and she may be lying to herself if we believe Kendra's version of events—but isn't that true of everyone to some greater or lesser degree? As a therapist, you have to choose which parts of the story are fact and which parts are perspective, and it's a delicate balance. Probably Dr. Friedland made many missteps where Kirby and her father Henry were concerned, in terms of things she took for granted. But as a therapist, it's hard to know when to take something at face value and when to doubt and probe further. So long as a client isn't delusional, the therapist certainly shouldn't go around doubting if, say, a woman claims her husband beats her—her therapist isn't going to think, well, that's a matter of perspective, because a fist hitting you in the face is not so much a perspective thing. But if she says, "My mother didn't love me," well, did her mother really not love her, or did she just show it poorly, or what was really going on? Probably the therapist isn't ever going to know for sure. Family therapy may reveal more because all the competing perspectives are there in the room, but in individual therapy you're always stuck in a first-person narrative, and every narrator is essentially unreliable, even if unintentionally.

I've been both a therapist and a client, and I can tell you I lied to my therapist all the time. If she asked a question that didn't interest me, I'd lie to make the answer simplistic or what I thought she wanted to hear so that we could talk about something else, or if I'd recently come to some kind of epiphany about my former behavior, I'd portray that past behavior to her through the lens of my recent epiphany, which may have played no actual role at the time.

There's an inherently cathartic property to storytelling—that's what talk therapy is all about. Supposedly the more you tell the story to an impartial observer, the closer you get to truth. But look at Freud and Dora: Freud in the end wasn't impartial, and he just got further and further into a fictional story. If Dora really was in love with Frau K, she never told Freud and he never guessed until it was too late. So we'll never really know. That whole case study, to some extent, was already a novella long before writers began recasting it.

JC: What are you working on now?

GF: I just finished another novel. It's called A Beautiful Violence, and it also takes place in Chicago, but a very different Chicago than Kirby and Kendra's Chicago. It takes place in the neighborhood where I grew up, and it's basically a coming-of-age story about growing up in the early '80s in an Italian and Latino neighborhood.

JC: When you look at stories for Other Voices, obviously there are things you look for. You want a compelling character and plot, good writing, obviously, but do you think you consciously gravitate toward stories that are different from what you yourself might write? Or similar?

GF: I've been asked that before, and I have to say that it's a combination. Like probably any writer, there are certain things I like because I do them. And there are certain stories I publish that are not very dissimilar from what I or maybe friends I have would write. But when you're publishing up to twenty stories an issue, it might mean there's one or two of those kinds of stories in an issue. Because the main thrust of any issue is not to make it too homogeneous. The main challenge of running a literary magazine, other than, of course, funding it, is how to get enough diversity in there. It's been a major mission at Other Voices, to get racial and ethnic diversity, experimental vs. traditional diversity, age. It's our constant struggle to make our title reflect reality.

JC: You don't see very many literary magazines that even try that.

GF: Some do. But it's not common. Of course, from what I've gathered, it's also not common for a literary magazine to build its issues entirely from what is commonly referred to as the slush pile.

JC: Entirely?

GF: Entirely. Our idea of soliciting work would be, maybe I run into a writer I know somewhere and I say, "Why don't you send me something?" But it's never a guarantee, and we read every single thing that comes across the transom in exactly the same way. The only way I would ever take something sight unseen would be if I'd heard it at a reading. We've solicited maybe four stories in the eleven years I've been at Other Voices.

Most writers who submit to lit mags are white. Most writers who submit to lit mags are out of academic programs. And we really try to, in every public forum possible, say that we want to hear from everyone else. If you've got a story, send it. It's got to be a literary story, but we're looking for writers who don't fit the mold.

JC: Other Voices, more than some other literary magazines, tends to embrace stories that push the envelope a little in terms of both form and content. People give lip service to the idea that they want something that pushes the boundaries, but few seem to publish them

GF: There's not a lot. There certainly are other magazines that do, but there are not a lot, even in the academic publishing community. Certainly there are independent presses that have built their reputations on doing these kinds of things. FC2 has always published risky work. However, while I like experimental fiction, I would also say that that phenomenon of the indie press being the domain primarily of very experimental fiction, with a lot of more conservative academic lit mags being terrified of that stuff, creates a huge chasm, where writers who are taking risks with content but are not necessarily formally innovative—just writing fairly traditional narratives but about real things in our culture, real issues of violence and oppression—these writers are finding fewer and fewer homes, because it's almost like now, to break into some of these indie presses, you've got to be super-freaky. And that's a small market of readers and writers.

I certainly don't want to not champion that, because I think it's absolutely essential that there exist houses that will publish these writers, but that's not really challenging corporate publishing in the same precise way. It's so far afield from what they're doing that it's not really saying, "Come on, we're going to prove to you there's a wide audience for riskier traditional work." Instead it's more like saying, "You stay on your side of the ring and I'll stay on my side, and we'll both pretend the other doesn't exist."

JC: What's going on with OV Books nowadays?

GF: We just chose our second collection, which is by a writer named Corrina Wycoff, called O Street. The collection is fantastic: it's a collection of linked stories, which is something I didn't think we were going to be doing, in part because our mission is so devoted to the short story form. I view that as the classic short story collection, because I think that's been even more marginalized by the big houses. However, we just fell in love with this book. It's a collection of linked stories about a woman who grows up with a schizophrenic, junkie, homeless mother, and her lifelong struggle after the experiences she had as a child. It's a harrowing book that exemplifies, not just because it's short fiction, certain things that the corporate market has trouble touching these days. People are really afraid of dark work, of work that doesn't have conventionally sympathetic characters, particularly by new women writers. There is a lot of the idea that women need to be writing about these spunky heroines who overcome great obstacles, where all the bad guys are bad and the good guys are good, and the bad guy gets impaled with an icicle at the end of the book. It's got to be something that would be good for the "Today" book club, or good for Oprah's Book Club. Or it's got to be "chick lit"—I think that's partly what's contributed to the marginalization of literary fiction by women. But Corrina's book is a scary, daring, dark, horrifying book that is beautiful.

JC: So, being on both ends, as a writer and an editor, do you get depressed about the state of publishing?

GF: I am depressed about the state of publishing. Honestly, I started OV Books because I was depressed about the state of publishing. I just wanted to give one writer a year a really great publishing experience, and I was determined to find a readership for these people, give them a good marketing experience, because I feel like a lot of the indies can't do a lot of marketing because they don't have much money. Other Voices doesn't have much money either, but we have been around for twenty years, so we have a certain amount of stability and credibility.

JC: I want to get back to what you said about the industry's fear of subject matter that's not uplifting. Why do you think that is?

GF: Post-9/11, post Bush administration Part I, there was a real swing toward Puritanism in this country. I see small signs that it's starting to fade, but it's gone so far in that direction that it's going to take years for any pendulum to swing back. Literary fiction now is often defined as these sort of quiet, subtle, pretty stories. But that's not all that literary fiction is. That's not what Philip Roth has been writing, for example. People have been writing books that scare people, books that shake people up and mean something. Books that are challenging. And now, I feel like literary fiction is starting, in the corporate marketplace, to mean something very different. The independent presses are becoming the gatekeepers to more challenging, risky work, especially by new writers.

If you're Margaret Atwood, you can still get away with things and the big houses will stand behind you. But if you're somebody no one's ever heard of—if you're Corrina Wycoff—they're gonna say, "Honey, forget it."

JC: You think that's more true of writing from women? It seems like it's always been OK for men to be more edgy. Look at American Psycho.

GF: Absolutely. There was a period in the '70s and then again in the '90s where women were starting to be able to write more honest, graphic, risky work. Mary Gaitskill is a good example of someone who really came into her own in the '90s and was published by very mainstream literary houses, but she might have a hard time getting published for the first time today. Even Kathy Acker was getting published by large houses. Kathy Acker, for God's sake—she'd get on a really short list to be investigated by the government, nowadays.

It's a very different climate than the '90s, when there was a lot of edginess, even to the point that I'd say that what I was seeing sometimes in student writing was edginess for its own sake. Things were going pretty far in that direction, as they usually do before a pendulum swings back.

I remember a friend of mine was reading a book where a character got mummified and had sex with a dog. And it was published by a big house. I can't remember what it was called, but she kept telling me about it and asking "Why are these editors saying that your book is too graphic?" But the answer was that that was a very commercial book. That's always been OK in that arena. If you're V. C. Andrews, your characters can have incest with their brothers and get whipped with a switch by their grandmother, and all of that has always been fine in that market. But in the literary market, there are windows of opportunity for riskier, more graphically violent or sexual work, and then the window closes up and you've got to be E. M. Forster. Not that Forster didn't write about difficult things, but you've got to be very quiet, and restrained and dignified.

JC: For me, that begs the question: in some ways, despite all the talk about "good writing," does the literary market have just as many constraints and conventions as any genre market?

GF: I wouldn't say "just as many" constraints, no, but of course there are constraints. I really don't think most people believe there aren't constraints, or that "good writing" is absolutely the only thing that matters, in the sense that we live in a capitalist country, and publishing is a business, and businesses need to make money, etc. The literary publishing industry is no different; it's simply expected that literary titles earn less money than some other, blockbuster-ish titles, and so expectations are adjusted. But there is still, by all means, a concept of "what sells" in the literary market, and what the public wants, and what will make money within the confines of how much money literary fiction titles are "supposed" to make. You don't have to follow a formula like a Harlequin romance writer, like "introduce romantic lead by end of the first chapter" or something like that, but there are conventions that the industry believes work, and those the industry believes don't work. Sometimes the industry believes that sex sells, and other times it believes that sex offends.

JC: And right now, they like these sort of well-crafted, domestic stories. Like Gilead. Which I am not by any means saying is a bad or poorly written book.

GF: No, but that very much exemplifies that kind of writing, and particularly for women. I think literary fiction has always been more of a domain of men. It's hard for women to break in, period. Though it's also still difficult for a male writer to write a really risky book. Don De Grazia's novel American Skin, a very violent book that dealt with white supremacists, even though in a very critical way, had a really hard time getting published because people said it was politically incorrect and the American public wouldn't be able to handle it. After that book got published overseas and became a bestseller, then Scribner's took an interest in it here. Certainly, men encounter things like that. However, I would venture to say that because more literary fiction is published by male writers, and because women are increasingly being associated with the chick lit movement, which has nothing to do with literary fiction, it is harder and harder for a serious literary woman writer to put out work that might be viewed as unpalatable or risk-taking by the editors and marketers.

JC: Were you happy with Chiasmus?

GF: Absolutely. Lidia Yuknavitch is somebody who is so filled with love for avant-garde literature and so full of integrity about what constitutes good literature that the only thing on her agenda is to find books that she loves, that she thinks are challenging and that really have something to say. Albeit the downside of that kind of idealism is often that it entails not necessarily being a voracious marketer, because to some extent marketing is corporate bullshit, and if you're not willing to play a corporate bullshit game, you can't do certain types of marketing. But obviously, most indie presses have arenas that they market to that they don't think are bullshit and that have a similar worldview to themselves. Chiasmus is very true to its values.

JC: I understand you worked with a publicist to help promote your book. Is that a step you'd recommend for writers?

GF: I hired a publicist primarily because I was eight months pregnant when the book came out, so I knew I wasn't going to be able to go around and tour, to do as much for the book as I would have liked. But now I would recommend that any writer who can should hire a publicist, yes.

I would especially say that writers can rely on indie presses for integrity, creative support, putting forth the money to print the book and getting it a distributor—these are huge things, and they're things you can't really do for yourself with any credibility. But writers who publish with independent presses need to understand that they need to do a lot of their own marketing. Tod Goldberg did it for OV Books—and I think we were actually a lot more willing to play that game and had more money to spend than a lot of the other small presses do.

If you aren't careful, publishing a book can be like throwing a party and nobody comes—if you're not willing to do a lot of your own legwork. You may need to set up your own readings. Go to other cities and read there. Send out a certain number of your own review copies. The press will help you do it, but some indie presses can only send out twenty review copies, and that's not going to cut it. You should be sending out twenty review copies to blogs alone. So if you have to buy your books at half price to send them out for review, think of it as a financial investment the way you would think of graduate school as a financial investment. You're not going to spend as much money marketing your book as you would spend on a creative writing education, but it might do more for you.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2006-2007 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2006-2007


Y The Last Man Vol. 1Brian K. Vaughan, Pia Guerra, José Marzán, Jr., et al.

by Rudi Dornemann

In the nearly twenty years since the debut of Neil Gaiman's The Sandman, the comic book series that have followed from DC comics' Vertigo imprint have become almost a genre of their own. They offer a writer working with, often, a fairly stable art team five or six years' worth of monthly issues in which to tell a story. It's an expansive canvas, offering more room for detail, incident, and sheer volume of character experience than all but the heftiest prose novels. The Vertigo series has developed its own usual structure, in which early, somewhat episodic story arcs gradually give way to more tightly linked sections, toward a grand climax and tying up loose ends, which is followed by denouement that lasts one or several issues.

We've probably got a year or so before Brian K. Vaughan, Pia Guerra, and Jose Marzan, Jr. bring Y: The Last Man to its conclusion, but, with the book beginning to gain momentum toward its finale, it's a good time to take a look at the comic so far.

The basic concept is fairly straightforward: every man on earth has died, except for one, Yorick Brown, and this is his story. What follows from this premise is a sort of post-apocalyptic road trip, first across the U.S., then across the world, which gives Vaughan and his collaborators a chance to explore the changes that follow from half the world's population dying, and from the survivors being women.

The sole male survivor, Yorick Brown, is, ironically, an amateur escape artist. He's likable, occasionally a jerk, and rarely acts in a particularly heroic manner. The larger, more dramatic gestures belong to the characters around him—characters like 355, an agent from a secret government cabal formed by George Washington, or Hero, Yorick's sister. As Vaughan has shown in Ex Machina, he has a penchant for interesting historical tidbits, like the Culper Ring, 355's organization. This can lead to the occasional overloaded speech balloon, but it also keeps Y connected to our world, with its history and all the consequences of that history.

Y balances the ongoing story of the travels of Yorick, 355, and cloning expert Dr. Alison Mann, with what the trio observes in the communities they encounter. Like any good post-apocalyptic scenario, the world that Vaughan, Guerra, and Marzan show us is an unsettling combination of the changed and the familiar. Some of the women encountered by Yorick and his companions are making a new start while others cling tightly to what remains of their old lives. Some, like the Daughters of the Amazon, want to remake the world by any means necessary, however violent. Others, like the inhabitants of Marrisville, Ohio, pursue a quieter path, but one that may lead them a little closer to utopia.

Like any long-running series, the typical Vertigo comic has a tendency toward expansion as secondary characters reappear and begin to develop storylines of their own, and Y is no exception. It’s a little trickier here, however, since the trio of main characters is continually on the move, and may be several thousand miles away by the time the comic jumps back to check in on characters from previous issues. In volume 7, Paper Dolls, and volume 8, Kimono Dragons, an ongoing storyline has developed around Hero and a number of other characters who've crossed paths with Yorick. This isn't just an example of mid-series spread—at this point, Y has built up enough narrative drive that Vaughan can step away from the ongoing story to spend time on a second story and occasionally devote entire issues to filling in the pre-catastrophe backstories of the characters.

One indication that the story had the ability to remain compelling without its main characters came in "Comedy & Tragedy," which featured guest artist Paul Chadwick. Picking up on the series' loose Shakespearean themes, this two-issue story at the end of the third collected volume followed a group of traveling players performing a play-within-a-comic that imagines what would have happened if a lone man had survived the plague. It's an alternate-take microcosm that spotlights Y at its best, offering a quick tour of its themes and tensions, bringing together both the weight of history and the everyday experience of living it.

As the comic moves into its final act, its final resolution depends on maintaining this balance between larger issues and individual lives. Y seems to be building toward answering some of the big questions that have been in the background since the very first issue: Why did all the men die? Will humanity survive beyond those currently alive? For readers, however, the question is not only whether Yorick and his friends will find these answers, but how the journey will end for the memorable characters we've followed for so long.

Click here to purchase Vol. 1: Unmanned at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2006-2007 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2006-2007

REAL SOFISTIKASHUN: Essays on Poetry and Craft

Portrait of the Artist as a White PigTony Hoagland
Graywolf Press ($15)

by J. MacNeill Miller

Tony Hoagland’s poetry has a tendency to take you by surprise. Somehow, from the unlikely combination of casual, everyday language and subjects that seem downright unpoetic—he has written a poem about visiting the chiropractor and has no qualms waxing sentimental about a young man practicing oral sex on a light switch—he manages to produce book after book of poignant and accessible verse. His latest work, however, has the award-winning poet trying his hand at a different genre: the essay. Real Sofistikashun, a collection of his writings about poetry, proves that Hoagland’s considerable talents lose nothing in the foray across genres.

Any fan of Hoagland’s work will recognize in these essays the same elements that make his poems so powerful. Hoagland is a master of the metaphor. He peppers his prose with little descriptive gems, like his depiction of Wallace Stevens’s images as “linguistic slide shows that bloom and vanish on the billowing clouds of his lyric” or his portrayal of unintended meaning as a kind of psychological stowaway, “some zebra mussel or termite / . . . / hunkered in the dark.”

Hoagland’s other great strength, his Whitmanesque populism, also works to his advantage here. As the title indicates, Real Sofistikashun never makes the mistake of taking itself too seriously. At one point, Hoagland quotes from John Ashbery’s “The Dusk-Charged Air,” only to confess that he himself has never read the three-page poem in its entirety. That kind of admission might sound embarrassing or even unprofessional, but Hoagland, in his folksy-but-sophisticated way, manages to turn it to his advantage: he charms the reader with his candor even as he uses the poem’s difficulty to illustrate a larger point about Ashbery’s poetry.

In fact, Hoagland’s approach to “The Dusk-Charged Air” serves as a neat summation of the unpretentious intelligence that makes Real Sofistikashun so widely appealing. Hoagland may be uniquely suited to guide less-experienced students of poetry through the chaotic contemporary scene. His writing never grows overly scholarly, and as a self-proclaimed “centrist” poet, Hoagland appreciates the diverse styles of poetry being produced in America today. The poems under scrutiny in the book run the gamut from the works of more conservative confessional poets to writing from the Language school. In essays that address topics like “the dialectical use of tone” and the value of cruelty in poetry, Hoagland gamely tackles the strengths and weaknesses of each style, allowing room for personal preference. His critical instrument of choice is the close reading, where he strings observations together into larger patterns intended to show what “works” in a poem and what doesn’t.

Hoagland has a sharp eye for the details that make great poetry unforgettable, and his insights more than compensate for the slightly formulaic structure of the essays. But as a commentator, Hoagland’s greatest gift may be his rare ability to dissect a poem without killing it—his line-by-line analyses actually increase the reader’s enjoyment of whatever poem he puts under the microscope. The end result is an intelligent and highly readable collection. Real Sofistikashun should be especially useful to the non-academic poetry lover, as well as poets hoping to learn a thing or two to better construct their own verse.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2006-2007 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2006-2007

FEELING LIKE A KID: Childhood and Children’s Literature

Feeling Like a KidJerry Griswold
Johns Hopkins University Press ($19.95)

by Emma Shafer

“It is striking,” writes Jerry Griswold in his in-depth inspection of children’s literature, Feeling like a Kid, “how often growing up in children’s literature means looking down and be-littling.” Griswold, then, is child-like at heart, letting none of his years nor any part of his academic nature interfere with his frank admiration of children’s literature. Feeling like a Kid is written in the crisp, bright manner of a yet-to-be disillusioned graduate student happening upon an exciting new subject for the first time, combined with the sage irony and impeccable background of a full-fledged academic expert that one would expect from an author who is the director of the National Center for the Study of Children’s Literature.

Griswold explores children’s literature through five key themes: snugness, scariness, smallness, lightness, and aliveness. Each of these tropes exhibits a certain appeal to young people and simultaneously guides adults in understanding the psyche of children. As Griswold says, “the great writers for children know—and their stories speak of and reveal—what it feels like to be a kid.” Griswold deftly references a virtual smorgasbord of classic children’s literature in his quest; he stumbles, however, in that the vast majority of the books he explores are quite old-fashioned. This is not to say there is no merit in older works. In fact, books such as Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows or George MacDonald’s The Light Princess, too little known to this generation of readers, are delightful inclusions. Where Griswold reveals his weakness is in the decided lack of comparable titles from contemporary authors and his inclusion, instead, of so-called "blockbuster" children’s books such as the Harry Potter series.

This omission of pertinent contemporary works of children’s literature is troubling. Griswold indicates his assumption that even if he is able to remain in touch with his inner child, his audience is made up of those who have grown up to look down upon contemporary kids’ books, concerning themselves only with the children’s literature written when they themselves were children. For example, the captivating 1971 novel Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH is only mentioned in passing—and, horrifyingly, only by the title of the movie based upon the book, in a list of children’s movies in which the phenomenon of Smallness is present. Similarly, the mysterious and intriguing animal daemons found in the universe of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy would be impeccable additions to Griswold’s assertions regarding Aliveness, but are overlooked for more traditional examples, like the animals of Aesop’s fables.

Of course, one book cannot be exhaustive in such a broad and varied field without becoming superficial, and Feeling like a Kid is anything but superficial. It is rather an adept and engaging blend of scholarly analysis and genuine passion and regard for the value of children’s literature.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2006-2007 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2006-2007