#FridayReads The New Yorker‘s excerpt from Robert Caro’s fourth volume in his long-running LBJ bio. Powerful narrative of the day JFK was killed and LBJ took office, and how this picture came to be taken by WH photographer Cecil Stoughton. As readers of this blog may recall, I’ve had opportunities to converse with Caro and I’m a huge admirer of his 1974 book The Power Broker. It will be a treat to read his latest book when Knopf publishes it in May. I am also finishing James Kunen’s remarkable Diary of a Company Man, which I posted on for my last #FridayReads. Think Aaron Copland’s “Fanfare for a Common Man,” only it’s not set to music, it’s in prose.
Last weekend I was privileged to attend a great event celebrating the comic arts, graphic novels, and New York City for PW Comics World, the online comics home of Publishers Weekly. The event was called Comic NY-A Symposium and my article, “Comics, New York City And History at Columbia’s Low Library,” has now been published at the PW website. If you love the comic arts and graphic novels, enjoyed watching Paul Giamatti play Harvey Pekar in “American Splendor,” or ever chuckled over MAD magazine, I invite you to read my piece at the PW site or here on my blog. FYI–the rendition below is illustrated with more than 60 photos of mine that do not appear on the PW site, which has other, excellent pictures.
– Comics, New York City And History At Columbia’s Low Library by Philip Turner, Mar 29, 2012
Are the creators of comics and graphic works storyteller-artists inspired by the drive to imagine the urban landscape? Or are they journalists, motivated by an impulse to document the cities where they live? As considered by a bevy of comic talent at Columbia University, the answer is they are both—imaginative artists and chroniclers reimagining and reflecting their worlds—and more. The scene for these dynamic discussions was Columbia University’s Low Library where “Comic New York-A Symposium” was held March 24-25. With thirty panelists participating in six panels, plus a keynote discussion with acclaimed X-men writer and collector Chris Claremont, more than 250 comics fans were treated to in-depth conversations about how the comic arts have been influenced by New York City and how the metropolis has absorbed the influence of the comics. Claremont was honored for donating his archive to Columbia University’s Rare Book and Manuscript Library.
The opening panel, “New York, Real and Imagined,” began with Kent Worcester, co-editor of A Comic Studies Reader, sharing five comics images that showcased New York’s tremendous verticality; in “Gasoline Alley,” where Skeezix and Walt ride on a magic carpet high above the city, and in Superman, when the Man of Steel dangles a villain over a yawning chasm between skyscrapers. Along with the verticality the city has lent to comics, Worcester also asked his audience to consider Manhattan’s street grid, a visual analog to the panel format of comic books. Molly Crapabble, illustrator, cartoonist, denizen of New York’s downtown art scene, conceded she’s an outsider to the comics world and said that she makes frequent reference to Thomas Nast and Heironymous Bosch for the crowded scenes of ribaldry she draws. Asked about New York’s underground life, she observed that the subway is “the hair shirt” of the city, contrasted with “the sparkly, silver Babylon” above ground. John Romita, Sr., who drew Spider Man with Stan Lee, said he made New York a veritable “co-star” with the web-spinner, while his son, John Jr., aka JRJR, who drew Daredevil, spoke of the dark and “moody” look he deliberately brought to the series. TV writer and autobiographical comics artist Ariel Schrag told an improbably hilarious story about a brawl at a gay prom she attended at Columbia, events she chronicles in her coming-of-age graphic memoirs.
In the panel “Political New York,” literary agent, underground cartoonist, author and legendary comics publishing figure Denis Kitchen said that interviewing Harvey Kurtzman for the book he wrote on the founder of MAD, Kurtzman told him he’d wanted the magazine to be “a machine-gun attack on American culture,” and a “subversive” force combating “phoniness.” Sabrina Jones, graphic biographer of dancer Isadora Duncan and urban planning hero Jane Jacobs, had a dialogue with moderator David Hadju about how comics are an accessible and democratic medium that is suited well to political expression. Peter Kuper, comics artists, illustrator and co-founder of the seminal journal World War 3 Illustrated, to which Jones and many others contributed, recalled that his magazine used to be sold at head shops, though this means of “self-distribution” suffered when the alternative establishments were shuttered in periodic crackdowns. Before showing his own biting cartoons, John Carey unveiled a slideshow of images that in condensed fashion anatomized modern editorial cartooning—from Jules Feiffer’s acerbic anti-Nixon tilts to David Suter’s op-art created under Jerelle Kraus’s inspired direction at the New York Times Op-Ed page to Edward Sorel’s lacerating and always visible lines.
The underground comics scene was considered in “Alternative New York,” a panel moderated by Gene Kannenberg, Jr., author of 500 Essential Graphic Novels, who asked Bill Griffith, creator of “Zippy the Pinhead,” for his definition of “alternative” comics. Griffith, who worked alongside R. Crumb in the sixties, recalled the 1973 Supreme Court decision that criminalized dealers who sold comics, putting his work outside the mainstream. R. Sikoryak, author of Masterpiece Comics, observed that in music an alternative band one year may become a pop darling the next, and that much the same can occur in comics.
“Periodical New York” got off to a raucous start with Irwin Hasen, who drew the original Green Lantern. Now in his nineties, Hasen announced he had always wanted to be an “entertainer” and proceeded to nearly steal the show from moderator Eddy Portnoy and his fellow panelists by careening in off-topic directions with funny laugh lines. But Portnoy maintained course and steered Hasen back to discuss his experience creating “Dondi,” the strip featuring an Italian immigrant boy new to the city that appeared in many newspapers. Ben Katchor, creator of “Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer,” which ran in the New York Press for many years, rebutted the idea that comic renditions of urban life such as Metropolis or Gotham are necessarily stand-ins for New York. More than some of his fellow speakers, Katchor insisted on the primacy of “invention,” recounting for instance that a newspaper he created for his comic world, The Evening Combinator, “reported the dream life of the city.” Cartoonists Emily Flake and Lauren Weinstein described searching for a fictional truth, a truth that goes beyond the facts and gets to the heart of a city. Both women embraced what one called “the delightful improbability of urban life.”
In a discussion of New York as a breeding ground for comics, the venerable MAD cartoonist Al Jaffe recalled getting his start in the studio of the legendary comic strip and comic book innovator Will Eisner, where he created the character “Inferior Man,” a kind of super-antihero. Jaffe called Eisner “a brilliant artist, brilliant writer.” Moderator Danny Fingeroth asked Dean Haspiel—the prolific artist who’s drawn Harvey Pekar’s The Quitter, Cuba: My Revolution with Cuban writer/painter Inverna Lockpezas and many other works—if he could identify why New York high schools have produced so many comic artists. Dean was stumped and, drawing a laugh from the audience, he conceded that when he studied art at LaGuardia High School, he didn’t even learn to draw perspective. Tracy White, author of the graphic novel, How I Made it to Eighteen, kept the laughs coming when she remembered that on a bus she took regularly as a teenager she noticed a man who was evidently getting “hair plugs,” because each day he appeared slightly more hirsute than the day before. Thus, she learned to be a perennial observer. Miss Lasko-Gross, author and illustrator of A Mess of Everything, cited her own upbringing in suburban Massachusetts, which made finding a foothold in New York all the more essential in her progress as an artist.
A panel examining comics in the academy wrapped up the two days with a lively discussion of how the field is slowly becoming an integral part of the wider scholarly world. N.C. Christopher Couch, of the School of Visual Arts, suggested that a canon of essential graphic novels and comics should be promulgated so that a reader or a student approaching the field will know what they must read. Paul Levitz, a longtime president and publisher of DC Comics, now teaching a course at Columbia, urged scholars to get busy interviewing the aging veterans of the early decades of comics, lest they pass away before their memories are preserved. Jonathan W. Gray, of John Jay College at CUNY, noted the growth of cross-disciplinary studies with many collaborations occurring among scholars in art history and various literary fields.
Comic New York was a richly rewarding event for artists, writers, and comics fans, who availed themselves of the well-stocked book table, buying many copies of graphic novels and books of comic art that were autographed by panelists between sessions. To Columbia’s credit, it should also be noted the symposium was entirely free of admission charges. Additionally, videos of the panels and the keynote will be up on the site within a week or two.
Comic New York was mounted not only to bring together creators, scholars, and fans but also to celebrate the donation by keynoter Chris Claremont—best known for his work on “The Uncanny X-Men” and “Wolverine”—of his personal archive to Columbia’s Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Karen Green, graphic novels librarian at Columbia and organizer of Comic New York, is hopeful that Claremont’s donation represents the “beginning of wider acquisitions in the papers of comics writers and artists in the New York City area.” As comics become ever more important at Columbia, Green expects to be holding other events in the future.
Philip Turner is a lifelong comics reader, longtime editor and publisher. As a retail bookseller in the 1980s, Turner was pleased to have graphic novel pioneer Harvey Pekar as a regular customer in his Cleveland bookstore. His previous story for PW Comics World was “PEN World Voices: Getting Real With Superheroes.” Turner blogs at The Great Gray Bridge.
World’s Fair with Superheroes
Comic NY poster
Karen Green, graphic novels librarian, Columbia University
Ariel Schrag, Molly Crabapple, JRJR (photo by Kyle Gallup)
Peter Kuper, John Carey, Sabrina Jones, Denis Kitchen
Will Eisner’s Contract With God
World War 3
World War 3
WW 3 covers
Nixon and Ford by Edward Sorel
Op-Art, David Suter
Grover held hostage, John Carey (Greater Media Newspapers)
Hammer & sickle as a human face, David Suter
Donald Trump by John Carey (Greater Media Newspapers)
If Stravinsky had Lived in Suburbia, John Carey (Greater Media Newspapers)
Jane Jacobs by Sabrina Jones
Sabrina Jones panel
Gene Kannenberg, Jr.
Lost & Found Comics, Bill Griffith
Zippy the Pinhead by Bill Griffith
Times Square strips, Bill Griffith
East Village Other scene, Bill Griffith
Big Boy, Bill Griffith
R Sikoryak, Bill Griffith
Masterpiece Comics, R Sikoryak
Popysseus, R Sikoryak
Bill Griffith, Charles Brownstein, director Comic Book Legal Defense Fund
The Soundtrack of My Teens–Hearing Neil Young Live in 1969
This is really exciting news. On June 6, to promote his forthcoming memoir Waging Heavy Peace, Neil Young will speak at BEA, the annual book industry convention. I’ve been attending BEA most years since I got started in the book biz in 1978, back when it was still called ABA, and have usually taken a pass on the guest speakers, but not this year. I am very eager to be there for Neil’s appearance and I’m sure lots of other book people will be there too. His publisher, the Blue Rider imprint of Penguin Putnam has put out this release along with the news, explaining that he will be interviewed by someone to be named later. [May 24 update: It's been announced that Neil's interlocutor will be Patti Smith.] Speaking of interviews, Jian Gomeshi of CBC Radio One’s “Q” program conducted a great interview last year with Neil, and Daniel Lanois, producer of Neil’s 2011 album “Le Noise.”
I’ve admired Neil since I was fourteen when I saw him perform in Cleveland. I went with my older brother Joel–with whom I would later operate our Cleveland bookstore Undercover Books–and despite my being way under-age, Joel, who would have just turned eighteen, somehow got me past the front door with him. Confirming my memories, Jimmy McDonough’s indispensable bookShakey describes the venue as “a tiny basement coffeehouse,” though I recall it also served liquor. I recall Neil played two consecutive nights, and we even went back for night #2. This was shortly after Buffalo Springfield split up, around when Neil’s first solo album was released, and before he brought out “Everybody Knows This is Nowhere,” the first album with Crazy Horse.
Neil played solo acoustic sets both nights, but he also had a backing band that opened on its own and later played with him, a tight, country-tinged outfit called Natchez Trace, about whom I’ve found a faint trace online. From that source, a Buffalo Springfield fan site, I see that the La Cave shows were on Saturday, May 31 and Sunday, June 1. I recall that the club was not crowded either night. At some point during the two nights, Joel and I availed ourselves of the opportunity to go up and say hello to Neil. I extended a hand and shared a shake with him, then so young, and a bit shy in fringed buckskins and extremely thin, as he was not many years past the polio that had defined his early years, also chronicled in Shakey. When I hear Neil speak on June 6, I’ll be fondly remembering those La Cave gigs and the early days of Neil’s career.
#FridayReads, March 23–”Diary of a Company Man” & “Wayward Saints”
#FridayReads–DIARY OF A COMPANY MAN: Losing a Job, Finding a Life by James S. Kunen, whose Strawberry Statement: Notes of a College Revolutionary was a key 1960s text. After he was laid off from his corporate job in February 2008, Kunen describes himself as too young to retire, too old to hire. I’m still reading that first section of the book, over the weekend I’ll read how he weathers the storm of disemployment and comes out somewhere on the other side. Having experienced my own layoff, Kunen’s is a pitch-perfect rendering of the experience.
Also reading and loving Wayward Saints, a tragi-comic tale of rock ‘n roll, family, and second chances in life, by Suzzy Roche, of the singing Roches.
Update: I’ve now finished both these books, and loved them both, among the very best I’ve read thus far in 2012.
The Kunen book was really excellent on finding a new way through (mid-)life. Enduring my own layoff and disemployment, it was really inspiring to see Kunen, who’d worked in corporate PR at TIME, Inc. before he got dumped by the corporation, discovers a new meaning teaching English to immigrants. It’s titled Diary of a Company Man, and I kept thinking of Aaron Copland’s “Fanfare for a Common Man,” only it’s not etched in musical notes, but prose.
I’ve also now finished Suzzy Roche’s novel and found it to be an infectiously readable treat. I really loved it. It’s filled with wonderful characters spanning the generations and memorable situations. While Roche undoubtedly drew on her years as a traveling musician to flesh out the story, it doesn’t read as if it’s merely a novel about rock ‘n roll written by a musician; it’s a truly satisfying novel by a real writer, clearly not something that was just tossed off. Among the most striking features of it was the relationship between the musician protagonist, Mary Saint, and her mother Jean, from whom she’s long been separated. They learn how to forgive each other for past injuries. The second was the friendship between Mary Saint and her roommate Thaddeus, who becomes her confidant and motivator, able to push her to see what she’s still capable of doing.
D.C. Launch Party for Peter Beinart’s “The Crisis of Zionism”
First version of this post was written after I’d eagerly RSVP’d to the New American Foundation that I’d be attending the launch party next Monday for Peter Beinart’s brave new book The Crisis of Zionism. I’ve been to several recent events at their NYC loft, and was glad I’d be able to make this one too. Turns out, however, the reception will actually be at the NAF offices in D.C. Still, with Peter under assault for reasonable and progressive positions he’s taken that are correctly critical of the American-Jewish establishment and Israeli policy, in the book, in a NY Times Op-Ed, and on his new blog Zion Square, I’m going to keep this post up, to accompany two others I’ve written recently, Netanyahu & the Right Wing vs. President Obama and Iran and Iraq–Deja Vu All Over Again? and send it out via social media as I would for any other post. With Israel perhaps on the verge of an ill-considered attack on Iran, the times are just too charged with peril to do anything less.
My Love of Live Music in NYC–It All Began w/The Drongos in 1983
Now well past my twenty-fifth year of living in New York City, I’m still a fan of going out to hear live music in Gotham. Last week, for instance, I attended two great shows, blogging about them here and here. Tonight, finding the video I’m coupling with this post I was reminded that I was keen on hearing live music here even before I thought about moving to the metropolis.
In 1983, then living in Cleveland and running Undercover Books and Records with my sister Pamela and brother Joel and our parents Earl and Sylvia, Joel and I drove to NYC one summer weekend for a record release party. The band with the new album was The Drongos, an ebullient New Zealand quartet. We were already fans of the outfit, and making it even better was that they were managed by book biz friends Mike Shatzkin and Martha Moran. Their debut album was feted, I think, somewhere around Irving Place, though I could be mistaken about the location. I do remember it was a great night, because the album was not only on hand to be celebrated, but of course the band too. The friendly foursome–Jean McAllister, guitar and keyboards; Stanley John Mitchell, drums; Richard Kennedy, guitar; and Tony McMaster, bass–wrote their own songs and played several of the ten tunes from their self-titled LP during the evening. Looking at the album sleeve today, I recall such great songs as “Eye of the Hurricane” and “Life of Crime.” “Non Citizen,” written by Mitchell, typified the uneasy world of a visitor living in a country’s shadows:
Living life as a non-citizen Living under the table, keep your profile low. Leaving friends landed in another time, Came looking hoping to find the stages set.
Stony faces sleeping in the subway And in the nights hiding in the clubs, they let it show. Swim or sink, winning or losing, No one said the city had to play a good clean game, I say: Deep down, where we live Life seems so absurd But we keep on making the best of the western world.
Today those lyrics read like an 80s rock ‘n roll version of Tom McCarthy’s splendid 2008 movie “The Visitor.” Even while singing sensitive lyrics like those, The Drongos were a damn fine rock band, superbly professional musicians, entertaining, and tons of fun to hear live.
That whole trip with my brother, and that summer night in particular, was a great time. I remember it all fondly, not least because Joel died suddenly in 2008. Soon after moving to NYC in ’85 I looked up Jean McAlister and Tony McMaster, who were married and by then had a young daughter, Carmen. I remember a golden day I shared with them and baby Carmen in Riverside Park. As is wont to happen with so many bands, circumstances spun them out of their collective orbit, which doesn’t diminish the great band they were for a good stretch of time.
I was reminded of all this tonight when I saw that Richard Kennedy is still playing music professionally, living in the UK–has a terrific new video on Facebook of him playing guitar, pasted in above. H/t to Ira Nonkin who posted it on Facebook, and to Martha Moran, who brought it to my attention. So glad I still have my LP, so I could shoot the sleeve for this blog essay. The original album pictures were shot by photographer Leslie Fratkin, another old friend of Mike and Martha. For his part, Mike has also blogged about working with The Drongos.
THE DRONGOS–Jean McAlister, Stanley John Mitchell, Richard Gerard Kennedy, Tony McMaster