Monday, April 27, 2009

The Voices of Time

Ballard in front of Paul Delvaux's The Violation
[original lost, believed burned in 1940. Copy by Brigid Marlin]

James Graham Ballard
(born 15th November, 1930 in Shanghai
- died 19th April, 2009 in London)

Later Powers often thought of Whitby, and the strange grooves the biologist had cut, apparently at random, all over the floor of the empty swimming pool. An inch deep and twenty feet long, interlocking to form an elaborate ideogram like a Chinese character, they had taken him all summer to complete, and he had obviously thought about little else, working away tirelessly through the long desert afternoons.

I guess my first acquaintance with the work of J. G. Ballard must have come when I ran across the story "The Voices of Time" in some old Sci-Fi anthology in the school library. I was already a rabid fan of Clarke, Heinlein, Le Guin and all the others, but this seemed off-key somehow, from a rather different (though possibly contiguous) universe. The notes in the back of the book were less than helpful. Ballard, they said, was interested in the exploration of "Inner Space."

Now that I knew about. I'd been reading Hermann Hesse (Steppenwolf, The Journey to the East) for years. The back of one of my paperbacks even called him "the prophet of the interior journey." I'd read Kafka (The Castle, The Great Wall of China), too. I'd even heard of Absurdism, Existentialism, lots of other isms. Clever writing for clever people (my brother Ken had a thick, daunting-looking copy of Sartre's Being and Nothingness by his bedside, which impressed me inordinately). But that didn't seem to fit sentences like this exactly, either:

After Whitby’s suicide no one had bothered about the grooves, but Powers often borrowed the supervisor’s key and let himself into the disused pool, and would look down at the labyrinth of mouldering gulleys, half filled with water leaking in from the chlorinator, an enigma now past any solution.

“The Voices of Time.”The Complete Short Stories, 2001 (London: Flamingo, 2002): 169.

I wasn't sure if it was Sci-fi, but I liked it. It was languid, that was the word for it: languid. Ballard's heroes (and heroines) were cool, sexy, disillusioned. They didn't have adventures so much as play strange mindgames or develop inexplicable psychological tics ("Powers had watched him from his office window at the far end of the Neurology wing, carefully marking out his pegs and string, carrying away the cement chips in a small canvas bucket"). There was an air of consequence about it all, though. It was as if the moment one fathomed what was going on something wonderful would appear. It was, I realise now, the voice of the Postmodern.

After that I started to collect his books whenever I came across them, garish seventies paperbacks, with lurid covers, and titles such as The Unlimited Dream Company or Myths of the Near Future. There seemed to be dozens of them, novels and collections of stories, but that I was used to from my other Sci-fi heroes: Ray Bradbury, Frank Herbert, Philip K. Dick ...

The first ones that I read were (accidentally?) the first ones that he'd written: a series of Apocalyptic disaster stories in the tradition of John Wyndham's The Day of the Triffids or John Christopher's the Death of Grass. I say in the tradition of, but certainly not in the same manner.

Wyndham and Christopher had gripped me with their bleak picture of a future of starvation and struggle. Ballard, by contrast, in novels such as The Drowned World, The Drought, The Crystal World and The Wind from Nowhere didn't really seem particularly interested in his human protagonists at all. His attention appeared to be more on the aesthetic frisson of great ruined vistas of desert cities, drowned swamps in the heart of the Home Counties.

He charted, in prose as lush as Joseph Conrad's, a series of journeys to the Heart of Darkness - but then his heroes decided to stay there. To stay and immediately start making excavations in the floor of an abandoned swimming-pool. It was, to impose a phrase which would not become current till long long afterwards, post-human writing.

It could become tedious, mind you. His books were nothing if not repetitive, and while reading a couple of them could blow your mind, surfeiting and over-indulging could lead you to long again for the simple boosterism of an Asimov or an A. E. Van Vogt. I dabbled in the shallows of J. G. Ballard, let us say.

"The imminence of a revelation that does not occur," said Borges, "is this not, perhaps, the aesthetic phenomenon?" That seemed to sum him up. I loved the idea of him more, at times, than the actual detail of his minutely-crafted, ingeniously-told stories.

[Steven Spielberg, dir.: Empire of the Sun (1987)]

Then came Empire of the Sun.

Say what you like about the movie - simple-minded, over-the-top in parts (the Spielberg factor) - it was powerful. And suddenly everything fell into place. J. G. Ballard was (as he'd been saying all along to anyone willing to listen) a Science-Fiction writer only by title. What he'd been writing all along was an exploration of his own inner space - the psyche of a child separated from his parents, imprisoned in a Japanese prison camp in the immense, turbulent incomprehensible world of wartime Shanghai, a literal witness of the first Atomic blast.

No wonder so many of his stories were set on Pacific atolls covered with bunkers and equipment manuals, no wonder he was obsessed with urban wastelands (one of his most effective, in Concrete Island, is set in the grassy zone between two motorway ramps - no-one can escape because the cars will never stop). He wasn't imaginative so much as brave - what he was writing was a series of description of the furniture of the inside of his head ...

[J. G. Ballard: The Writer's Room]

"Why I want to fuck Ronald Reagan" - that was the title of one of his short stories. Another was "The Assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy Considered as a Downhill Motor Race." Empire of the Sun was all very well - beautifully, sparely written, correcting all the excesses of the Spielberg version when I finally got round to reading it. He succeeded in making his "real" childhood landscape a legitimate province of the Ballardian cosmos. But there was something just a little too easily-assimilable about it, I suspect, for him.

World War II had been slobbered over and preempted quite enough already, I suspect he thought. His interests were in the now, or (rather) in the now-plus-one. The coming Apocalypse preoccupied him far more than those past disasters (not that they could ever be truly "past" for him). Hence Crash.

[David Cronenberg, dir.: Crash (1996)]

For once a book of his found adequate incarnation in the movies. David Cronenberg's inspiration did not so much run parallel as in closely analogous territory to Ballard's. Crash shocked, disgusted, fascinated, repelled - most of all turned on audiences all over the world. It was shocking, garish, tasteless, hard to take - banned in some countries, cut in lots of others. Talk about drawing a connection between sex and violence!

It might have looked a bit worrying on the page, but by now Ballard was rapidly becoming a G.O.M., a Grand Old Man of letters. Translated onto the big screen, though, no polite masks or evasions were possible. This man was sick. What's more, he was telling the rest of us that we were too - that is was time to wake up and smell the coffee with a vengeance. Put on the Jackie Kennedy wig, roll over, and spread 'em ...

His later work may have been more subtle - certainly his books were now packaged as serious "literary novels" rather than pulpy sci-fi - but he never lost that subversive edge, that bleakness of vision, that sense of a world spread out before us not so much like "a land of dreams, / So various, so beautiful, so new," as like a radioactive motorway offramp leading down to an airstrip littered with abandoned bombers and fragmentary, water-soaked instruction manuals for the maintenance of same ...

There, there'll always be a beautiful stranger flitting round at the corner of your eye. Be warned, though: the only way to attract her is to start right away on your project of assembling old bicycle parts into a mandala. Then she'll come, when you're lying there dying of thirst, and sit just out of arm's reach, idly making a daisy-chain out of spent fuel rods as you try in vain to remember the opening verses of the Bardo Thodol ...

On that note, then, a heartfelt farewell and thanks to J. G. Ballard. There's never been a greater visionary (I firmly believe) than this humble man. He enriched us all - those who were willing to listen, at any rate - with his multiple, various body of work, which will survive him. As for his own body, that now departs into the void:

Oh you compassionate ones possessing the wisdom of understanding,
the love of compassion,
the power of acting,
& of protecting in incomprehensible measure,
one is passing through this world & leaving it behind.

No friends does(s)he have,
(s)he is without defenders, without protectors and kinsmen.
The light of this world has set.
(s)he goes from place to place,
(s)he enters darkness,
(s)he falls down a steep precipice,
(s)he enters a jungle of solitude,
(s)he is pursued by karmic forces,
(s)he goes into a vast silence,
(s)he is borne away on the great ocean,
(s)he is wafted on the wind of karma,
(s)he goes where there is no certainty,
(s)he is caught in the great conflict,
(s)he is obsessed by the great affecting spirit,
(s)he is awed and terrified by the messengers of death.

Existing karma has put hir into repeated existence
& no strength does (s)he have
although the time has come to go alone.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Dada Birthday Sonnets to Bill

393rd Anniversary of Shakespeare's death ...
(& possibly the 445th of his birth -
he was baptised on the 26th of April,
but that was normally done a few days later)
400th Anniversary of Mr. W. H. ...
90th Anniversary of Tristan Tzara's "Recipe for Making a Dadaist Poem"

Check out the rules for the game here.

No sonnets were harmed in the course of this exercise.

We did, however, borrow the texts of no's XX, XXX, LX, LXXIII, CX & CXXIX, as you can see in the video linked to here ...

(Thanks to Tim Page for filming & editing,
Michele Leggott & Helen Sword for leading & facilitating the project,
which can be linked to here.)

Highbrow Sonnet – Blanks Inserted

“relation to one another of lines and patterns of sound”
- Basil Bunting, "The Poet's Point of View" (1966)

To ------ -------

despite stand -------- before wherewith --------


hand contend and hasten stands end -----

brow time cruel truth flourish forwards place

being and and as they each crawl towards

nativity their crown’d waves maturity

crooked worth beauty’s and his shore

like in feeds parallels mow the so pebbled

rarities make transfix scythe glory confound

nothing minutes light changing sequent times

fight our now in once doth goes youth shall the

his the in do the main which time verse the

hope for on doth gave toil of nature’s gift

- DianeCasley/MatthewHawke/RobinDeHaan

Poetry as ere by as to it in with me

"Poetry, like music, is to be heard."
- Basil Bunting

Poetry as ere by as to it in with me
Of the thy was me do or or that
Makes the love of doth in love in the by is
Like sweet death’s hang boughs rest leave up it black choirs
Night whereon ashes blowing doth that which
Consumed ruin’d the twilight behold nourished none
Be such thou against bare thou must see’st seals cold
Second sunset sang year fadeth away by late
To which thou such time shake on youth day expire
The which fire where must death-bed mayst all the birds
After when strong of perceivest self thou
Upon those leaves few well that lie more
That yellow see’st west the which of me this
Take and that which in in his long thou music

- Alex Taylor / Georgina Higgins / Will Pollard

"All the arts are plagued by charlatans seeking money, or fame or just an excuse to idle."
- Basil Bunting

Had despised and spirit shame of past
Having straight mad enjoy’d knows is a trust
All the arts are plagued
No hunted purpose proved lust past so murderous
Dream extreme savage blame cruel in reason
by charlatans seeking
Proposed the waste perjured sooner of mad knows
Expense woe on in swallow’d the have this world
Action very well possession no this had taker
Quest action leads in sooner and reason
money, or fame or just
In a is shun non hated pursuit proof
Joy make extreme behind but not to hell
an excuse to idle.
Bloody the well the bait yet a and before
To that a lust till in heaven to and in
To bliss laid a rude all and as to a men

- Gareth & Daniel & Nolan

Of with and remembrance before many

“That is not poetry’s business.”
- Basil Bunting

When I sweet thought many and I thee end sad
And then grievances the time’s woe sessions
Heavily and cancell’d unused night pay
For paid new I while of remembrance dear
Death’s afresh fore-bemoaned to from waste grieve
Past friends at of friend can sorrows account
Silent woe a o’er which sought foregone
Then and love’s think to expense dateless if
Things flow sight drown sigh the up before weep
Restored with hid moan tell summon losses
Precious the not dear of the can old my
Vanish’d eye moan many if on an new
Thing all lack in but long wail woes since to
Are I woe a I the and as I of of

By Tricia and Alex!

"Such defects no doubt sickens some people
of poetry readings ..."
- Basil Bunting

mine whom welcome worse on view most friend old
made and most true heart truth have true all am
gored more affections grind on motley made
sold the alas love best myself heaven
thoughts gone dear have strangely ‘tis have own another
proved youth to blenches it the older best
essays most then confined to there mine pure
breast askance and gave is most offences
here but try end have cheap appetite I
give my loving look’d next me god and an
shall never is by thee now proof what above
these and I done love my what newer new
no is my a to all will that of and
in to of thy I a I even

"... the worst, most insidious charlatans fill chairs and fellowships at universities, write for the weeklies or work for the BBC or the British Council or some other asylum for obsequious idlers ..."
- Basil Bunting

purpose women’s amazeth object master-mistress
women’s rolling controlling pleasure a-doting
whereupon hast thy false woman’s me created
gilding adding nature’s but prick’d with nothing

thou than mine passion addition gentle one
eyes love wrought acquainted treasure face as man
woman’s the thing gazeth thee much an thee
hue own for thou steals my woman fell bright

by in and painted by wert defeated of
and change shifting women’s thy nature and
fashion with more but eye in not be men’s a
hand all use theirs a first love’s ‘hues’ their till

souls heart out she his since for a a of as
in she to and is the my false it less thee

- Helen & Jack & Michele

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Concern for Tony Veitch's Safety

Yes, I felt concerned
when he went missing yesterday
Tony had tried to do it twice before
his lawyer said

(or was that his publicist?)
kill himself, that is
This time was far more serious
wandering around Ngaruawahia

on his own!
He could easily have been killed
crossing the road
Cynics said it had something to do

with Dame Susan Devoy
the former Queen of Squash
complaining of the misuse
of her testimonial

for a passport application
produced in court with 20 others
from “prominent New Zealanders”
in support of domestic abuse

When celebrities turn on their own
it’s never pretty
He has been fined & given 300 hours
Oh right, it was his publicist

(call her a “media minder”)
who explained that the references
solicited from sporting stars
were alleged to be for a passport

because “the sentencing hearing
needed to be kept
completely confidential”
I mean, what did they think?

That he was going to fuck
off? It’s hard to get these things
straight, easy to be fooled
by media bias. I mean

how many times
does a poor guy have to cry
on television before we accept
that it’s okay

to kick a stroppy bitch
down some concrete stairs
when she gets in your face?
It’s just not true that

he left her lying there for hours
with a broken back
I mean, what kind of a man
do you take him for?

& all that namby-pamby
shutting up that she’s been doing
angling for sympathy, I call it
from women and pinkos and gays

the ones who’d turn on any
red-blooded guy
administering domestic correction
They were all over it from the beginning

It’s as if they had something to prove

Friday, April 17, 2009

The Dada Lady of the Sonnets

[Shakespeare: The First Folio portrait (1623)]

Take a newspaper. Take some scissors. Choose from this paper an article of the length you want to make your poem. Cut out the article. Next carefully cut out each of the words that make up this article and put them all in a bag. Shake gently. Next take out each cutting one after the other. Copy conscientiously in the order in which they left the bag. The poem will resemble you. And there you are – an infinitely original author of charming sensibility, even though unappreciated by the vulgar herd.

- Tristan Tzara, "Recipe for Making a Dadaist Poem" (1919)

Shakespeare's Sonnets were first published by Thomas Thorpe in 1609, and dedicated (by the publisher) to a certain "Mr. W. H." This may have been William Shakespeare himself (albeit with a misprinted last initial). Who knows? Speculation on the identity of the mysterious "W. H." has never ceased for a second.

As we approach the four hundredth anniversary of their appearance (and the 393rd of the Bard's death on 23rd April, 1616), surely it's time for Dada to put in a word? Tristan Tzara's famous "recipe" of 1919 is, after all, approaching its own 90th anniversary ...

So Happy Birthday, Bill & Tristan (& Mr W. H., for that matter)!

Here are the rules of the game:

  • Each group of three should choose an envelope
  • All of you cut up the sonnet inside into its separate words
  • Put them back into the envelope and shake it up
  • One of you should take them out and read them aloud one by one
  • The second should paste each word on a sheet of coloured paper
  • The third should type it onto a computer screen
  • When each line has reached approximately 10-11 syllables, start a new one
  • You should end up with 14 lines in arbitrary order
  • Congratulations, you are now a master of the sonnet form!

So, to explain, this is the cut-up game we'll be playing in class on Tuesday 21/4 (Michele Leggott & Helen Sword's stage 3 English course Poetry off the Page).

If any of you at home would like to play it, too, feel free to send me the results, or (better still) leave them as comments at the bottom of the page.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Unpacking My Comics Library

[Walter Benjamin: The Arcades Project]

In 1931, Walter Benjamin wrote an essay called "Unpacking my Library: A Talk About Book Collecting" (included in the collection Illuminations (1968)). It's been a comfort ever since to obsessive bibliophiles. He makes the activity sound almost respectable!

The conceit of the essay is that its author is unpacking the various crates that make up his library, and musing on the various treasures they contain:

I am unpacking my library. Yes, I am. The books are not yet on the shelves, not yet touched by the mild boredom of order. I cannot march up and down their ranks to pass them in review before a friendly audience. You need not fear any of that. Instead, I must ask you to join me in the disorder of crates that have been wrenched open, the air saturated with the dust of wood, the floor covered with torn paper, to join me among piles of volumes that are seeing daylight again after two years of darkness, so that you may be ready to share with me a bit of the mood - it is certainly not an elegiac mood but, rather, one of anticipation - which these books arouse in a genuine collector.

He rejects the notion of simply listing or enumerating the books, or even just the obvious gems of his collection:
I ... have in mind something less obscure, something more palpable than that; what I am really concerned with is giving you some insight into the relationship of a book collector to his possessions, into collecting rather than a collection.

Recently I myself have become aware of the need to cut down a bit, to spend less time snouting around bookshops (new or secondhand) - or around, for that matter - and the solution I've come up with is to expend the same energy cataloguing the books I already have.

It'll take quite a while, that much is certain. But then it's hardly worth having books if you don't know what you have, is it? The last rough census I conducted (in December 2007) left me with a grand total of 12,838 books, but I can't help feeling the number may have grown a bit since then (that was after a massive purge of more than 30 boxes of books, in any case).

Anyway, I have no intention of inflicting too much of this catalogue on you, but it did seem like a good pretext for doing a post on comics and graphic novels. I know some see them as intrinsically lowbrow and unrespectable, but I had the good fortune to grow up in a house full of Tintin and Donald Duck. Both my parents were extremely fond of comics, and while my tastes have broadened a lot since then, I'm afraid that my definition of literary genius is still as likely to be inspired by Hergé or Carl Barks as it is by John Ashbery or Angela Carter ...

So here are a few of some of my more interesting comics. I keep them in a series of plastic cubes, so you can see this as parallel to Benjamin's unpacking the 12 crates of his own library (if you want to, that is):

[Classics Illustrated]

Writers are really people who write books not because they are poor,
but because they are dissatisfied with the books
which they could buy but do not like.

- Walter Benjamin

Classics Illustrated:

  • Classics Illustrated (Featuring Stories by the World’s Greatest Authors). New York: Gilberton Company, Inc. / London: Thorpe & Porter, 1946-?.

    1. No. 1: Alexandre Dumas: The Three Musketeers.
    2. No. 2: Sir Walter Scott: Ivanhoe.
    3. No. 18: Victor Hugo: The Hunchback of Notre Dame.
    4. No. 29: Samuel L. Clemens: The Prince and the Pauper.
    5. No. 46: Robert Louis Stevenson: Kidnapped.
    6. No. 47: Jules Verne: 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.
    7. No. 63: Jules Verne: Off on a Comet.
    8. No. 78: Joan of Arc.
    9. No. 81: The Adventures of Marco Polo
    10. No. 105: Jules Verne: From the Earth to the Moon.
    11. No. 142: Abraham Lincoln.
    12. No. 144: H. G. Wells: The First Men in the Moon.
    13. Classics Illustrated Junior, No. 525: Hans Christian Andersen: The Little Mermaid.
    14. World Illustrated, No. 514: Story of Great Explorers.
    15. World Illustrated, No. 531: Story of the Northwest Passage.

It became a kind of a cliché at school, I remember.

"Have you read so-and-so?"

"No, but I've read the classic comic."

They were terribly drawn, hopelessly clunky in the way they ran through the plots - but somehow magical. It's hard to blame parents who saw their kids reading them for concluding that comics were intrinsically inferior to "proper" books, but they still seem to me a cut above Coles' (or Cliffs') Notes ...

In any case, there are a lot of images from the group above which are indelibly seared onto my mind's eye - from Jules Verne in particular.

[Barry Windsor-Smith: The Lurker Within]

Every passion borders on the chaotic,
but the collector's passion borders on the chaos of memories.

- Walter Benjamin

Conan the Barbarian:

  • Savage Tales, 2: “Rogues in the House.” By Roy Thomas & Barry Smith. Melbourne: Gordon & Gotch / Sydney: Colour Comics Pty, n.d.

  • Savage Tales, 3: “A Sword Called Stormbringer!” By Roy Thomas & Barry Smith. Melbourne: Gordon & Gotch / Sydney: Colour Comics Pty, n.d.

  • Savage Tales, 9. Melbourne: Gordon & Gotch / Waterloo: Federal Publishing Co., 1985.

  • Climax Adventure Comic, 11: "Conan the Barbarian in the Coils of the Man-Serpent.” By Roy Thomas & Barry Smith. Melbourne: Gordon & Gotch / Sydney: Colour Comics Pty, n.d.

  • Conan the Barbarian, 3: “The Garden of Fear.” By Roy Thomas & Barry Smith. Melbourne: Gordon & Gotch / Sydney: Colour Comics Pty, n.d.

  • Conan the Barbarian, 7: “The Monster of the Monoliths.” By Roy Thomas & Barry Smith. Melbourne: Gordon & Gotch / Sydney: Colour Comics Pty, 1970.

  • Conan the Barbarian, 254: “Hyperborean Horror.” By Roy Thomas & Mike Docherty. New York: Marvel Comics, March 1992.

  • Conan the Barbarian, 255: “Priests of the Purple Plague.” By Roy Thomas & Mike Docherty. New York: Marvel Comics, April 1992.

  • Conan the Barbarian, 260: “The Second Coming of Shuma-Gorath.” By Roy Thomas & Mike Docherty. New York: Marvel Comics, September 1992.

  • Conan the King, 35: “The Ravaged Land.” By Don Kraar & Judith Hunt. New York: Marvel Comics, July 1986.

These sword-&-sorcery epics exerted even more of a fascination on me, I recall. Best of all was the comic where Conan met Michael Moorcock's hero Elric and his terrible soul-eating sword Doombringer (the second in the list above). Barry Smith's drawings were elegant and precise, though few of his successors could emulate him in this. The Roy Thomas scripts managed to convey a good deal of the mad intensity of Robert E. Howard's Nietzschean original ... I remember writing a poem about it once, in fact: "Memories of Conan the Cimmerian":

Death which would have skewered the barbarian
like unto a worm …
if not for his steel-spring quickness!

– Roy Thomas / Barry Smith, “Rogues in the House”

Across the dark lands, the dark republic
of dreams, coming for you, running, running


on eager feet, tamped dry-earth roads,
irresistible, sure-footed, in the dark


with death in hand, with weapons,
weapons at the ready, keen, blood-thirsty


He comes, he comes, Brüder

the girl in the denim skirt
laughs at a fat man’s joke

as dawn arises, he is on the scent

[First published in Tongue in Your Ear 7 (2003): {19}]

[Carl Barks: A Christmas for Shacktown]

the chance, the fate, that suffuse the past before my eyes
are conspicuously present in the accustomed confusion of these books.

- Walter Benjamin

Walt Disney:

  • The Carl Barks Library of Walt Disney’s Donald Duck. Ed. Bruce Hamilton, with Geoffrey Blum and Thomas Andrae. 30 vols in 10 Boxed Sets. Scottsdale, Arizona: Another Rainbow Publishing Inc., 1983-89.

    1. 1942-1949: Donald Duck Four Color 9-223 (1984)
    2. 1949-1971: Donald Duck Four Color 238-422, 26-138 (1986)
    3. 1952-1958: Uncle Scrooge 1-20 (1984)
    4. 1958-1963: Uncle Scrooge 21-43 (1985)
    5. 1963-1967: Uncle Scrooge 44-71 (1989)
    6. 1945-1974: Giveaways, Annuals, Miscellaneous (1983)
    7. 1943-1948: Walt Disney’s Comics and Stories 31-94 (1988)
    8. 1948-1954: Walt Disney’s Comics and Stories 95-166 (1983)
    9. 1954-1959: Walt Disney’s Comics and Stories 167-229 (1985)
    10. 1959-1969, 1974: Walt Disney’s Comics and Stories 230-405 (1983)

  • Barks, Carl. Walt Disney’s Donald Duck Adventures, 3: “Lost in the Andes.” 1949. Prescott, Arizona: Gladstone Publishing, Ltd., Feb 1988.

  • Barks, Carl. Walt Disney’s Donald Duck Adventures, 14: “Donald Duck and the Mummy’s Ring.” 1943. Prescott, Arizona: Gladstone Publishing, Ltd., August 1989.

  • Disney, Walt. Walt Disney’s Donald Duck, 262: “Donald’s Cousin Gus." 1938. Prescott, Arizona: Gladstone Publishing, Ltd, March 1988.

  • Disney, Walt. Zio Paperone, No. 10. Milano: Mondadori, Agosto 1988.

Well, these are genuine masterpieces, I have to say.

I won't claim that Carl Barks had much of an opinion of human nature, but he taught the basic principles of society and its rules through the protean figures of Donald Duck, his know-it-all nephews, and his uncle, the tycoon Scrooge McDuck.

I can't agree (pace Ariel Dorfman) that the latter is simply an embodiment of Yankee imperialism. As you can see from the extract above, the bitter black humour of the narratives masked an intense knowledge of and sympathy for the sufferings of the poor. Barks wasn't born with a silver spoon in his mouth. He never forgot the fact, either.

His body of work is as massive and complex as Balzac's.

[Bryan Talbot: Alice in Sunderland]

"The only exact knowledge there is," said Anatole France,
"is the knowledge of the date of publication and the format of books."

- Walter Benjamin

Graphic Novels (miscellaneous):

  • Crimmins, G. Garfield. The Republic of Dreams: A Reverie. New York: W. W. Norton, 1998.

  • Dille, Robert C. The Collected Works of Buck Rogers in the 25th Century. 1969. USA [Chicago:] Chelsea House Publishers, 1970.

  • Horrocks, Dylan. Hicksville: A Comic Book. 1998. Montreal: Drawn & Quarterly, 2001.

  • Jane at War: The original and unexpurgated adventures of the British Secret Weapon of World War Two. 1939-45. Illustrated by Norman Pett. London: Wolfe Publishing, 1976.

  • Reynolds, Chris. Mauretania. London: Penguin Books, 1990.

  • Smith, Jeff. Bone. 1991-2004. Columbus, Ohio: Cartoon Books, 2004.

  • Talbot, Bryan. Alice in Sunderland: An Entertainment. London: Jonathan Cape, 2007.

Here's a group of very disparate works, each brilliant in its own way: Dylan Horrocks' homegrown epos Hicksville remains as relevant today as when it first started to come out in Pickle in the 80s and 90s; Bone is a picaresque and amusing tale, on a pretty large scale. Alice in Sunderland is probably the one which delights me most at present, though. It's hard to characterise, a sort of genre-bending history book and revisionist biography: a labour of love in the truest sense of the word ...

[George Herrimann: Krazy Kat]

if there is a counterpart to the confusion of a library,
it is the order of its catalogue.

- Walter Benjamin

Krazy Kat:

  • Herriman, George. Krazy & Ignatz: The Komplete Kat Komics. Volume 1: 1916. Forestville, California: Eclipse Books / Turtle Island Foundation, 1988.

  • Herriman, George. A Katnip Kantata in the Key of K: The Komplete Kat Komics. Volume 7: 1922. Forestville, California: Eclipse Books / Turtle Island Foundation, 1991.

  • Herriman, George. Inna Yott on the Muddy Geranium: The Komplete Kat Komics. Volume 8: 1923. Forestville, California: Eclipse Books / Turtle Island Foundation, 1991.

If you haven't met Krazy Kat you really should do so at once. About the only thing I ever heard to William Randolph Hearst's credit is that he insisted on having the strip run in all his newspapers, and came down hard on any that dared to drop it.

Most of them did try to drop it, at least once. It was, after all, the closest thing to Dada that the comic strip has ever attempted. A kind of mad linguistic fantasy more along the lines of Finnegans Wake than Huckleberry Finn.

Not that the concept is complex - just the number of variations that can be played on the basic love triangle of Krazy, Ignatz Mouse and Offissa Pupp.

[Jack Kirby: New Gods]

Collectors are people with a tactical instinct; their experience teaches them that when they capture a strange city, the smallest antique shop can be a fortress, the most remote stationery store a key position.
- Walter Benjamin

Jack Kirby:

  • New Gods. Issues, 1-11: 1971-72. New York: DC Comics, 1998.

Late Kirby worries me a bit, I must admit. After reinventing the aesthetics of the action comic with his work on the Fantastic Four and Hulk in the early 60s, he eventually parted ways with Marvel's Stan Lee in the 70s - and was never quite the same man again.

There are flashes of genius here, but also a kind of static anti-narrative grandiosity which lacks the lightness and balance of his earlier work. I suspect that dyed-in-the-wool Kirby fans will take great umbrage at this put-down of any of the master's work, though ...

[Los Bros Hernandez: Love and Rockets Sketchbook]

How many cities have revealed themselves to me
in the marches I undertook in the pursuit of books!

- Walter Benjamin

Love & Rockets:

  • Hernandez, Jaime. Locas: The Maggie and Hopey Stories. A Love and Rockets Book. Seattle, Washington: Fantagraphics Books, 2004.

Oh God, who can resist Love and Rockets? My own preference has always been for Jaime's "Locas": Maggie and Hopey, over the complex interrelationships of Gilberto's imaginary Central American village Palomar, but it's strictly a choice of excellences.

The Hernandez brothers have to take their place in any pantheon of the greatest comics heroes. And it's nice to have their strongest work collected in these (massive) omnibus volumes.

[Frank Miller: Sin City]

the most distinguished trait of a collection
will always be its transmissibility.

- Walter Benjamin

Frank Miller:

  • Miller, Frank. Batman: The Dark Knight Returns. Introduction by Alan Moore. New York: DC Comics, 1986.

  • Miller, Frank. Elektra: Assassin. 1986-87. New York: Epic Comics, 1987.

  • Miller, Frank. Sin City. 1992. London: Titan Books, 1993.

Well, here's a man who needs no introduction. When I first read Elektra Assassin back in the 80s, I could see that this was something altogether exceptional. Funnily enough, it took me longer to get to The Dark Knight Returns, one of the "big three" graphic novels of 1987, the ones which finally persuaded virtually everyone who didn't have their heads terminally up their arses that here was a form which had finally come of age (the other two, if you're curious, were Alan Moore's Watchmen and the first volume of Art Spiegelman's Maus).

It took me longer to "get" Sin City. Now, post the film, I can see it for the masterpiece it is, but at the time it seemed to me to lack the complexity and layers of his earlier work.

Boy, was I wrong!

[Alan Moore & Melinda Gebbie: The Lost Girls]

the phenomenon of collecting loses its meaning
as it loses its personal owner.

- Walter Benjamin

Alan Moore:

  • V for Vendetta. Illustrated by David Lloyd. New York: DC Comics, 1990.

  • Saga of the Swamp Thing. Issues 21-64: 1983-87. Vols 1-6. New York: Vertigo, 1987-2003.

  • DC Universe: The Stories of Alan Moore. New York : DC Comics, 2006.

  • Watchmen. Illustrated by Dave Gibbons. New York: DC Comics, 1987.

  • From Hell: Being a Melodrama in Sixteen Parts. Illustrated by Eddie Campbell. 1999. Sydney: Bantam Books, 2001.

  • A Disease of Language. Illustrated by Eddie Campbell. 1999 & 2001. London: Knockabout – Palmano Bennett, 2005.

  • America’s Best Comics. No. 1. (2000)

  • The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Illustrated by Kevin O'Neill. Vols 1-2. La Jolla, CA: America’s Best Comics, 2000-2003.

  • Lost Girls. Illustrated by Melinda Gebbie. 3 vols. Atlanta-Portland: Top Shelf Productions, 2006.

Moores has suffered from a series of terrible film adaptations of his major works, but anyone familiar with the comics which gave rise to them could see at once the intensely innovative and nervous brilliance which informs his best work.

V for Vendetta wasn't so ill-served as the earlier, completely-rewritten From Hell or (shudder) The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. It's taken till now, though, with the sheer punch of Zack Snyder's new adaptation of Watchmen for non-comics fans to understand something of Moore's sheer narrative power.

They dont' call him a genius for nothing. Though he's a terrifyingly uneven one.

[Harvey Pekar: American Splendor]

Even though public collections may be less objectionable socially
and more useful academically than private collections,
the objects get their due only in the latter.

- Walter Benjamin

Harvey Pekar:

  • From off the Streets of Cleveland Comes … American Splendour: The Life and Times of Harvey Pekar & From off the Streets of Cleveland Comes … More American Splendour: The Life and Times of Harvey Pekar. 1986 & 1987. Introduction by R. Crumb. New York: Ballantine Books, 2003.

  • The New American Splendour Anthology. New York / London: Four Walls Eight Windows, 1991.

  • Pekar, Harvey, & Joyce Brabner. Our Cancer Year. Art by Frank Stack. New York / London: Four Walls Eight Windows, 1994.

Once again, a film tie-in that helped to publicise a genuinely worthwhile and original comics talent. Harvey Pekar's American Splendor of course drew initially on some of the counterculture clout of R. Crumb and his other friends, but his naturalist vision is quite distinct. I'm not sure it would be praising him to compare him to Frank Norris or Theodore Dreiser. In many ways he's a better writer than either, but their projects seem in many ways related.

[Art Spiegelman: Maus]

O bliss of the collector, bliss of the man of leisure!
- Walter Benjamin


  • Adelman, Bob. Tijuana Bibles: Art and Wit in America’s Forbidden Funnies, 1930s-1950s. Introduction by Art Spiegelman; Commentary by Richard Merkin, Essay by Madeline Kripke. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1997.

  • Spiegelman, Art, & Françoise Mouly, ed. Raw. Vol. 2, no. 2. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1990.

  • Spiegelman, Art. Maus: A Survivor’s Tale, I: My Father Bleeds History. 1986. London: Penguin, 1987.

  • Spiegelman, Art. Maus: A Survivor’s Tale, II: And Here My Troubles Began. New York: Pantheon Books, 1991.

  • Spiegelman, Art. In the Shadow of No Towers. London: Penguin Viking, 2004.

He's tailed off a bit, but there's still no getting past Maus. As Oscar Wilde once put it, "There are two ways of disliking my plays - one is to dislike them. The other is to prefer The Importance of Being Earnest."

There are two ways of putting down comics now. One is to put them down. The other is to extol the merits of Maus and only Maus.

Raw is still worth a read after all these years. What a cool idea for a magazine! Each issue is a little work of art. I wish that Spiegelman would allow himself to make more mistakes now, though. Oh, for the fecundity of an Alan Moore! Fall flat on your face - we don't care. Only publish some real comics again ...

[Sacco in Bosnia]

as Hegel put it, only when it is dark does the owl of Minerva begin its flight.
Only in extinction is the collector comprehended.

- Walter Benjamin

Joe Sacco:

  • Palestine. London: Jonathan Cape, 2003.

  • Safe Area Goražde. 2000. Seattle: Fantagraphics Books, 2005.

  • Notes of a Defeatist. London: Jonathan Cape, 2003.

Joe Sacco is kind of a god to me. I like him even more than Harvey Pekar (if that's possible). To call him influential would be to imply that there's anyone capable of following his lead, but, really, isn't this a great way for comics to be going?

Investigative journalist / War Correspondent in some of the most troubled corners of the globe - and he does it with a sensitivity and balance, a lack of self-aggrandizing grandiosity, which would do credit to a latter-day Ernie Pyle or Stephen Crane ...

[Neil Gaiman's Death]

ownership is the most intimate relationship that one can have to objects.
Not that they come alive in him; it is he who lives in them.

- Walter Benjamin


  • Carey, Mike. Lucifer. Issues 1-75: 1999-2006. Vols 1-11. New York: Vertigo/DC Comics, 2001-7.

  • Carlton, Bronwyn. The Books of Faerie. 1993-99. Vols 1-2. New York: Vertigo/DC Comics, 1998 & 2007.

  • Gaiman, Neil. The Sandman Library. Issues 1-75: 1988-96. Vols 1-10. New York: Vertigo/DC Comics, 1995-97.

  • Gaiman, Neil & Yoshitaka Amano. The Sandman: The Dream Hunters. New York: Vertigo/DC Comics, 1999.

  • Gaiman, Neil. The Sandman: Endless Nights. New York: Vertigo/DC Comics, 2003.

  • Gaiman, Neil. Midnight Days. 1989-95. New York: Vertigo/DC Comics, 1999.

  • Gaiman, Neil. The Last Temptation. 1994-95. Oregon: Dark Horse Comics, 2000.

  • Gaiman, Neil. The Books of Magic. 1990-91; 1993. New York: Vertigo/DC Comics, 2001.

  • Rieber, John Ney. The Books of Magic. Issues 1-50: 1994-98. Vols 1-7. New York: Vertigo/DC Comics, 1995-2001.

  • Horrocks, Dylan, & Richard Case. The Names of Magic. 2001. New York: Vertigo/DC Comics, 2002.

  • Willingham, Bill. Fables: Legends in Exile. Issues 1-51: 2002-6. New York: Vertigo/DC Comics, 2002-2006.

  • Willingham, Bill. Fables: 1001 Nights of Snowfall. New York: Vertigo/DC Comics, 2006.

"I loved Enitharmon, and I was not ashamed." (W. Blake). I loved Sandman, and, yeah, maybe I was a little ashamed at first, and maybe they don't seem quite as cool now as they did when I first read them, but there are certainly parts of Neil Gaiman's huge, motley edifice which remain as enchanting as ever.

What's more, Sandman has given rise (directly or indirectly) to a whole slew of sequels and spin-offs. Tim Hunter and the Books of Magic is basically okay, I think, though it tailed off sharply towards the end of John Ney Rieber's run. Fables, similarly, hasn't really lived up to a very strong start, I feel.

But Mike Carey's Lucifer is a masterpiece. Better even than Sandman (though dependent on it in various ways). Here's where you should start if you want to know what a serious writer can achieve through the pages of a mere "fantasy comic." It's no accident that I own the whole run of volumes.

[Chris Ware: Jimmy Corrigan]

I have erected one of his dwellings, with books as the building stones, before you, and now he is going to disappear inside, as is only fitting.
- Walter Benjamin

Chris Ware:

  • Quimby the Mouse: Collected Works. 1990-1997. London: Jonathan Cape, 2003.

  • Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid in the World. London: Jonathan Cape, 2003.

This guy is seriously weird. Brilliant, yes, but self-loathing on a level I've seldom encountered outside the pages of Kafka or Beckett. He may be up with them for sheer originality, though. You need good eyes to make out his mad, minuscule, packed pages.

[Scott McCloud: Reinventing Comics (2000)]

Of no one has less been expected, and no one has had a greater sense of well-being than the man who has been able to carry on his disreputable existence in the mask of Spitzweg's "Bookworm."
- Walter Benjamin

Secondary Literature:

  • Bender, Hy. The Sandman Companion. New York: Vertigo/DC Comics, 1999.

  • Chin, Mike. Writing and Illustrating the Graphic Novel: Everything You Need to Know to Create Great Graphic Works. London: New Burlington Books, 2004.

  • Cotta Vaz, Mark. Tales of the Dark Knight: Batman’s First Fifty Years, 1939-1989. London: Futura, 1989.

  • Estren, Mark James. A History of Underground Comics. 1974. Berkeley, CA: Ronin, 1993.

  • Geissman, Grant. Foul Play! The Art and Artists of the Notorious 1950s E.C. Comics! New York: Harper Design, 2005.

  • Irvine, Alex. The Vertigo Encyclopedia. Foreword by Neil Gaiman. Introduction by Karen Berger. London: Dorling Kindersley Ltd., 2008.

  • Mackie, Howard, ed. The Very Best of Marvel Comics. New York: Marvel Comics, 1991.

  • McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics: the Invisible Art. 1993. New York: HarperPerennial, 1994.

  • McCloud, Scott. Reinventing Comics: How Imagination and Technology are Revolutionising an Art Form. New York: Perennial, 2000.

  • McCloud, Scott. Making Comics: Storytelling Secrets of Comics, Manga and Graphic Novels. New York: HarperCollins, 2006.

  • Wolk, Douglas. Reading Comics: How Graphic Novels Work and What They Mean. Cambridge, Mass: Da Capo Press, 2007.

I suppose the one of these you really need to own (or at the very least read) is Scott McCloud's classic Understanding Comics. Its two sequels supplement it in various ways, but the original work remains the single most cogent and persuasive plea for the possibilities of the medium that I've ever come across.

Actually that's understating it. No matter what medium of communication you're interested in, you owe it to yourself to read McCloud. His book is as thought-provoking as Erich Auerbach's Mimesis or John Livingstone Lowe's Road to Xanadu.

The Douglas Wolk book is good for its coverage of more recent work in the field, but it isn't a patch on McCloud's extraordinary work.

Oh, and did I mention, I haven't even started talking about foreign-language comics yet: all those manga and Bandes Dessinées ...

[Carl Spitzweg: The Bookworm (1850)]

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Roundup of Recent Events

[Gabriel White: The World Blank]

I'm afraid this post is a bit of a grab-bag of unrelated matters. Still, no harm in that, I suppose.

First of all, I want to urge all of you who are loose in Central Auckland any time in the next couple of weeks to check out Gabriel White's retrospective show "The World Blank" at The Film Archive Level 1 / 300 Karangahape Rd (Just above Artspace on the right side of the road heading towards Queen Street). It runs till the 28th of April, so you should have plenty of time.

I was at the opening on Tuesday last week, and heard Gabriel read out the commentary track to his early piece Airpoints, filmed in Melbourne in (I think) 2001. The text is available for free, and is well worth having.

The other works, all in the video-diary form which Gabriel's been experimenting with for the past seven or eight years, include Journey to the West, El Arbol del Tule, Tongdo Fantasia and Aucklantis. All of these are on sale for very reasonable prices (ranging from $15 to $35). I took the opportunity to complete my collection of Gabrieliana to date.


Secondly, here are some upcoming readings I'm booked in for in case anyone's curious to check them out:

Guest Reader (with Richard Wasley) at
St. Leonard's Church
Matakana Valley Rd

Friday, 1st May
Start 7.30

One of 10 Readers at the launch of
Our Own Kind: 100 New Zealand Poems about Animals
ed. Siobhan Harvey (Random House)
Artis Gallery

Thursday, 7th May
5.30 - 7.30 pm

One of 8 readers at
Old Government House
Auckland University

Wednesday, 27th May
5.30-7.00 pm


Finally, kudos to Scott Hamilton for knowing a rockstar when he sees one. In one of his most recent posts on Reading the Maps, he listed The Imaginary Museum as #5 in his top ten indie blogs:

... when the poets, short story writers, novelists, and essayists of twenty-first century New Zealand sit down at their desks and put pen to paper or finger to keyboard, who are they writing to? Who, I mean, is their ideal reader - the person who knows what they're getting at, wants them to get there, but won't tolerate any easy shortcuts or self-indulgent detours? I suspect I'm not the only Kiwi scribbler who would name Jack Ross as my ideal reader, and the assured, intelligent exercises in literary criticism on this blog will show you why.

Pretty good, eh? If you go to the comments after the post, you'll find me writing something almost equally fulsome about Scott's blog. There's a man with a lot of time on his hands who actually manages to spend it usefully by combing the net for bloody interesting stuff which I for one would never find out about otherwise ...

Of course, nobody's infallible.

Not that Jack's perfect - in his latest post he neglects to mention that he acquired his cat 'Zero' from me, and that shortly after doing so disposed of the perfectly good name I had given the creature.

"The creature," indeed! I ask you, does that cat look discontented to you? She loves her name, takes a fierce pride in it, actually. Trying calling her "Nui" and you'll find a set of razor-sharp claws flying in your direction ...