Temps Perdu

Posted by on January 21st, 2010 at 3:46 PM

My reading is too scattershot and piecemeal to do any kind of formal Best of 2009 (and anyway doing such a thing in any incarnation of The Comics Journal before the month of May seems somehow unnatural) but I do have a few scattershot and piecemeal observations about a couple of notable books.  There is no doubt that the book of the year is The Book of Genesis Illustrated by R. Crumb, and few years have been distinguished with work in the medium so significant, not that I have anything significant to say about it myself.  Crumb has more than any other cartoonist established the comic strip as a way of looking at the world, and now that you can’t say he hasn’t done any work of extended length what can anyone say against him?  Being a slave of fashion I was out of work for a big chunk of last year, and for a while it looked as though I wouldn’t be able to afford to see Crumb’s personal appearance at UCLA, part of his brief tour.  I got back in work not long before the show, so close that I was still torn as to whether I could make the outlay, the ticket not being cheap.  I dithered until the day of the show, and then I dithered so late into the day of the show that advance online sales had closed, so I figured, that’s it.  The way it worked was that if I was going to go home I would drive east, and if I was going to try to see if there were tickets at the door I’d go west.  I start of east telling myself, “Well, maybe he’ll have another lecture tour.”  I drive east about a half a mile and I say to myself “Who the hell are you fooling?  This is the last chance to see him in your life.”  So I did U-turn and went west, and wound up getting a better seat then I would have gotten in the advance sale.  I was two rows behind Ricky Jay and three rows in front of Matt Groening.

George Sprott 1894-1975 is an act of sympathetic magic that works.  George Sprott as a character and his story as a story are incidental to Seth’s attempt to conjure a time and the feeling of a time, the foreign country where they do things differently.  Whether what he conjures is an accurate portrayal of the time is incidental to how vividly he makes you feel it.  The one note that rings false is the idea that Sprott could have spun decades worth of weekly lectures and television shows out of nine trips to the Arctic, which takes it out of the realm of verisimilitude and into the realm of magic realism.  It would have been more credible as a general travelogue; if you’ve lived long enough you’ve seen those shows.  (Where I lived it was Bill and Hadla Linker, the Happy Wanderers.  Grandma used to watch it.)  I don’t know if exploring the nature of Canadian identity was part of the intention or something I imagine in my Yank-o-centrism.  When you cross into Canada you know you’re in another country as much as you do when you’re in Mexico.  But where in Mexico you feel a strong cultural counter-current, in Canada it seems as though there’s a surface tension at the border that holds cultural imperialism back.  Whether it is intentional or incidental a feeling of the Canadian emanates from George Sprott‘s pages.

I had this squelch on Darwyn Cooke’s The Hunter where I was going to compare it to Tom Cruise in The Vampire Chronicles in that I’d give him credit for struggling heroically with gross miscasting if it hadn’t been his idea in the first place.  Unfortunately use of this bon mot was dependent on Cooke actually being self-miscast as the adaptor of Richard Stark’s hardboiled icon (yes, I know it’s Donald E. Westlake, but Stark is a whole different person).  I had an inkling this tragic waste of snark was forthcoming from the universal praise the book was getting, but my attitude was that of the veteran sportswriter who, coming into the press box three innings into a ballgame, imperiously grabs a scorecard a junior reporter has been keeping to catch up on what he’s missed.  Seeing that the cub has drawn a little picture of a glove in one square, he asks, “What the hell is this?”  “It means it was a great play,” the fledgling replies.  “I’ll be the judge of that,” says the old maestro.  Now that I am ready to make an official ruling I see that what I failed to take into consideration Cooke’s feel for the Jet Age.  This is the sort of detail you could easily overlook if you were totally blind.  Though when the books were written the time period was simply the present day, the passing years have made them historical novels, and Cooke makes the early 1960s the most vivid character in the story.  I’m sure there must have been comics adaptations of a work of fiction that are as good as this but they don’t exactly spring to mind.  I write this as someone who is about as fully invested in the originals as written as anybody.  Parker is along with George MacDonald Fraser’s Harry Flashman one of the two great antiheroes of an age of antiheroes.  Unlike Jim Thompson, who was shooting for bigger game, the Parker books don’t meddle with the psychology of the sociopath.  Rather, the reader and the character are sociopaths together.  The theme of the series is professionalism, and the weary reader of drugstore paperbacks is invited to identify with Parker as a consummate professional constantly bedeviled by fools, fuck-ups and those who just won’t follow the code, an effect that works regardless of your actual level of personal competence.  I wasn’t bowled over by the way Cooke handled The Spirit, but he’s certainly learned a lot from Eisner about handling a thriller.  As I happen to have re-read the novel recently I could see how Cooke got whole paragraphs into panels.  If there’s a flaw it’s that Cooke makes Parker more conventionally handsome than he ought to be, but as he will be having plastic surgery in the next volume this may well pass.  He’s also drawn physically larger than he ought to be, but this is an effect employed to convey his aspect of intimidation.  I’ve been intrigued by Cooke for some time, and for the comics snob the key advantage of The Hunter might well be the opportunity to see his work stripped of the elements that might incite one’s prejudices.

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2 Responses to “Temps Perdu”

  1. patford says:

    I agree completely about the Crumb Genesis.
    Nothing is close to it. A man among small children.
    I loved George Sprott, and sought out Clyde Fans as well. I had been aware of Seth for quite some time, but was put off by his name. Yes I know how idiotic that sounds, but it reminded me of “Prince” “Madonna” etc.
    I’m quite shallow that way, if a person goes by one name I’ve kicked them in a hole, but Seth has climbed out of it, and I look forward to his work.
    The Parker book I got from the library. I wasn’t interested, but had heard much praise, and thought, “Why not, it’s free.” Unlike The Watchmen which I finally tried to read (also from the library), and found I couldn’t take more than a 100 pages before getting the old, “what am I doing” feeling, I read the whole book. I wouldn’t be tempted to read another. Skip it and Rip Kirby. Find the old International Polygonics edition of Dashiell Hammett’s Secret Agent X-9 drawn by the young Alex Raymond.
    Hammett himself wrote the first long (7 month) episode as well as the next two narratives. The fourth story passed to another writer by King Features is based on a Hammett plot, and lacks flavor. The book also contains the episode scripted by Leslie Charteris author of The Saint.
    In addition the book is edited by Hammett biographer William Nolan who describes Hammett’s interesting time spent assisting Will Gould on Red Barry. Hammett and Barry met on a regular basis at the insistence of King. Gould commented, “Hammett was the thin man, above six feet, maybe one-forty-five with rocks in his pocket. We’d talk far into the night about everything but comics. Talked about fighters, about his days as a Pinkerton cop. He would keep pouring drinks past midnight. Hammett told King Features, “Leave the kid alone, he knows what he’s doing, and he sure doesn’t need a wet nurse.”

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