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May 5th, 2012

By Philip Turner in: Books & Writing; Music, Bands & Radio

#FridayReads, May 4-“Harvey Pekar’s Cleveland” & “Rifftide”

#FridayReads Harvey Pekar’s Cleveland, artist Joseph Remnant and editor Jeff Newelt’s posthumous publication of one of the late Pekar’s last manuscripts, lovingly assembled. Also, Rifftide: The Life and Opinions of Papa Joe Jones, as Told to Albert Murray, edited by Paul Devlin–Jones was longtime drummer in the Count Basie Band, a garrulous soul.

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April 24th, 2012

By Philip Turner in: Books & Writing; Philip Turner's Books & Writing; Urban Life & New York City

Dean Haspiel on Drawing (and Remembering) Harvey Pekar

Here’s a neat visual feature by comics artist Dean Haspiel on the Trip City website detailing the different approaches and multiple takes he experimented with before settling on a final version for the cover of a 2008 Harvey Pekar “American Splendor” comic. Haspiel was one of thirty comics creators who participated in Comic New York–A Symposium that was held at Columbia in March and which I covered for PW Comics World and cross-posted about on this blog. Speaking of the late Pekar, I’ve recently received a copy of Harvey Pekar’s Cleveland from Zip Comics with art by Joseph Remnant and edited by Jeff Newelt and it’s a terrific posthumous edition of the great comic writer’s work.

And if you’re a Pekar fan–I’ve loved his work ever since he used to shop in Undercover Books, my Cleveland bookstore, in the 80s–you’ll enjoy this podcast on the Trip City website, with the voices of Haspiel, Remnant, Newelt, Zip Comics publisher Josh Frankel, and Harvey’s widow, Joyce Brabner.

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March 29th, 2012

By Philip Turner in: Books & Writing; Philip Turner's Books & Writing; Publishing & Bookselling

Comics and New York City–A Beautiful Friendship

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.

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March 9th, 2012

By Philip Turner in: Books & Writing

#Fridayreads/March 9–The Crisis of Zionism

#Fridayreads The Crisis of Zionism, Peter Beinart’s timely examination of Zionism in the world today, counterposing Barack Obama and Bibi Netanyahu. Eager to hear from Beinart (pictured here) at a @NewAmerica Foundation event next week. Also enjoying the 1927 classic Circus Parade, by Jim Tully with a Foreword by the late Harvey Pekar, an unsentimental portrait of big top life. To learn more about Tully, a hobo writer turned Hollywood insider, here’s a blog essay of mine about him.  


November 17th, 2011

By Philip Turner in: Books & Writing; Philip Turner's Books & Writing; Publishing & Bookselling

Lost American Writer Found–Jim Tully

Until recently, I had not read even one of the fourteen books by the early- to mid-twentieth-century American writer Jim Tully (1886-1947) and knew little about him. Given my personal interest in Tully’s subject matter, which included circuses, hoboes, and riding the rails, springing from his twin milieux, rural Ohio and early Hollywood, I’m surprised at myself for having been slow to pick up on him. Now having sampled his work and discovered what an important and successful literary career he made in his life by reading the excellent new biography of him, Jim Tully: American Writer, Irish Rover, Hollywood Brawler, I’m going to do my part here to redress this widespread case of historical amnesia. I believe that now–especially in light of the Occupy movement and the attention it’s drawing to the economic distress afflicting millions in our society–is an ideal time for Jim Tully to be rediscovered.

I first heard Tully’s name in 1986, when I was editing and publishing Suite for Calliope: A Novel of Music and the Circus, the first great literary novel I ever had the privilege to edit. I discovered the manuscript while serving as first reader at Scribner’s for The Maxwell Perkins First Novel Award, a fiction contest the publisher then held in honor of their storied editor who nurtured the talents of Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and Wolfe. Having owned and run Undercover Books, a Cleveland indie bookstore chain from 1978-85, during the period that A. Scott Berg’s Maxwell Perkins: Editor of Genius was published, I was thrilled to get a job with them, my first in publishing. Working three days each week during the six-week stint, I sat in Scribner’s conference room with jiffy bags and manuscripts stacked up around me like drying cord wood. My assignment was to unpack all these mailers and read between 5-50 pages of each entry, fill out a brief questionnaire, and signal a thumbs-down or -up for a possible second reading by the full-time editorial staff. Coincidentally, I recommended 70 entries, or 10%, for second readings. There was one entry I really loved, by an E.M. Hunnicutt, for which I eagerly read far more than 50 pages. My recommendation of it was more enthusiastic than for any other candidate, but it didn’t win the prize. Before finishing the job, I wrote down the author’s phone number and made a copy of the manuscript.Suite-for-Calliope

With this first stretch in the ink mines under my belt, I soon got a full-time editorial job, at Walker & Company, then a sleepy publisher of young adult non-fiction and genre fiction (Westerns, mysteries, Regency romances, etc.), published mostly for libraries. My genre was to be “men’s adventure.” Still, Walker had in its early years published books by John Le Carre and Flann O’Brien, so I was hopeful that I wouldn’t only be acquiring the male equivalent of bodice-rippers. My first week at Walker I called the initialed author and soon found myself talking with “Ellen” Hunnicutt. She told me she’d long used the initials to disguise her gender, since she had sold many stories to Boys’ Life over the years. I told her how much I had liked reading her draft manuscript, with its compelling narrator, Ada, an adolescent girl and musical prodigy who’s fled a bizarre custody battle that engulfed her family in the wake of her mother’s death. She’s sought safe harbor amid a circus troupe that’s wintering over in a quiet Florida camp and found solace in composing a requiem for her late mom on the troupe’s calliope. Ellen and I hit it off beautifully and her novel became the first original manuscript I ever acquired. Over the year that followed, Ellen and I engaged in a vigorous dialogue about her novel and its theme–the creative purposes to which suffering and mourning may be put. In the course of my editing and her revising, Ellen became reinvigorated with her own book, which she’d earlier thought she’d finished. In the course of the edit, she told me about this writer, Jim Tully, and his 1927 book, Circus Parade; she praised his unsentimental portrait of the raffish big-top life, which had influenced her own interest in the circus. She explained she’d read many of Tully’s books early in her life and that his fiction and nonfiction chronicles of hobo life, circus characters, and the down-and-out of the Great Depression had still been widely read when she was a young woman.

Before returning to Jim Tully, it must be said that when Suite for Calliope was published in the spring of 1987 it was given a starred review in Kirkus, Dell bought the paperback rights, and Walker sold out its first printing. The starred Kirkus happened to land on my desk on May 4, a fateful date on my perpetual calendar. It was the anniversary of the shootings at Kent State in 1970, the date that Undercover Books opened for business in 1978, and Ellen Hunnicutt’s birthday, which gave me the opportunity to place one of the happiest birthday calls I’d ever made. Before the novel went to the printer, Ellen was notified she’d won the Drue Heinz Literature Prize for her short fiction; the senior judge was Nadine Gordimer. The winning collection was published by Pittsburgh University Press under the title In the Music Library. Quite a year for Ellen—perhaps she had imbibed some of Tully’s elixir for success. Working with her was a great privilege and affirmed my ardent interest in modern nomads and the circus life. For a 2004 Carroll & Graf anthology, Step Right Up: Stories of Carnivals, Sideshows, and the Circus, my editorial colleague who made the selections, Nate Knaebel, smartly chose to include “With Folded Hands Forever,” a dark passage from Circus Parade, yet as a busy editor myself I wouldn’t grasp the opportunity to read Tully’s work or properly focus on him until many years later.

At Book Expo America (BEA) in 2010 I paused at the exhibit of Kent State University Press, from my old backyard in northeast Ohio, happy to discover that under their Black Squirrel Books imprint they were beginning to republish many of Tully’s fourteen books. I saw new editions of The Shanty Irish (with a Foreword by John Sayles), Circus Parade (Foreword by Harvey Pekar), The Bruiser (Foreword by Gerald Early), and Beggars of Life (Foreword by Paul J. Bauer and Mark Dawidziak).

Again at BEA, in 2011, I saw that while continuing with their program of Tully revivals, Kent State was now bringing out a proper Tully biography, also by Paul J. Bauer and Mark Dawidziak, with a Foreword by Ken Burns. I read it last summer and found it to be a great portrait of an extremely worthy subject. Just like Max Perkins deserved and got a great book, so did Tully, and while he’s not around to see his reputation shine once more, readers today can avail themselves of this terrific biography and much of his work. Though he’s definitely been in the shadows over the decades since his death in 1947, the cultural forgetting was never complete–he had published too many bestsellers on the vagabond life and was too much of a public figure to completely drop off the map. Hailing from St. Mary’s, Ohio, his fame and relative affluence only came after a childhood which got even tougher after his mother died when he was six. His father, a veritable deadbeat dad, enrolled him at age eight in a bleak Cincinnati orphanage, which was followed by servitude in the household of a mean farmer. From fourteen, he  was out on his own, living the life of a “road kid,” hopping freights, sleeping rough, learning the punishing trade of forging iron chains, boxing for small purses (a bit over 5 feet in stature and classed as a featherweight he won many matches), working as a tree surgeon (on the land of fellow Ohioan and future president, Warren G. Harding), and selling poems to newspapers for a dollar here and there. His writings all originated in observation and personal experience, doused in a hard-boiled style that arguably influenced Hemingway, Hammett, and Mailer. James M. Cain admired The Shanty Irish in a glowing review: “A yarn that soars up into the vaulted blue.” He became a switch-hitting bestseller, with fiction and nonfiction books appearing on the lists. He was employed as a writer by Charlie Chaplin and in demand from editors at Vanity Fair, who regularly commissioned his profiles of movie stars and Hollywood personalities, though it was well known that Tully declined to write fawning portraits of the famous. He became pals with Jimmy Cagney, John Barrymore, Lon Chaney, Boris Karloff, Tom Mix, Gene Fowler, Eric von Stroheim, W.C. Fields (the great comic and the diminutive redhead died within six months of each other), and a literary protege of H.L. Mencken, who extolled Tully to readers, emphasizing his capacity for plumbing the lower depths: “If Tully were a Russian, read in translation, all the Professors would be hymning him. He has all of Gorky’s capacity for making vivid the miseries of poor and helpless men.” Actors in film adaptations of his books included Wallace Beery and Louise Brooks. Tully’s books would also be read and admired by a young, hoboing Robert Mitchum, as I read in Lee Server’s excellent Robert Mitchum: ‘Baby, I Don’t Care.’

Film tie-in edition w/Richard Arlen, Louise Brooks, Wallace Beery

Biographers Bauer and Dawidziak steep the reader in Tully’s lifelong struggle to make himself into a significant person; glimpsing his continual act of self-creation is what I found thrilling about this book. The authors chronicle how even in relatively prosperous years, he continued striving to create himself and forge his work. Family agonies–his son Alton served several jail terms for brutal assaults on women–sapped Tully’s energies and darkened many of his latter days. Sadly, he lived along enough to see his reputation and book sales decline, leaving him to ponder what kind of country no longer cared to read about the travails of its have-nots, even while America roared ahead into the second half of the century. I feel Tully’s sorrow as his reputation ebbs and editors no longer keep him in demand for assignments.

Speaking of fiction genres, as I did earlier, I also want to remark on the sturdy nonfiction genre of biography. For me, I often find it the inexhaustible medium for chronicling the stories as a reader and editor I most yearn to hear. What’s great about the Tully bio–and other books like it that achieve this deep level of discourse with their subject’s life–is that the reader has a chance to assemble, in ways the biographer shows one how to do, how a literary career is lived and aspired toward, and achieved. The successful biography spans the decades and folds of a life, making the living subject comprehensible and one whom we understand. That’s what happened for me with Jim Tully: American Writer, Irish Rover, Hollywood Brawler, and why this book will be on my best list for 2011.

Reward this purposeful publishing. I urge you to get a copy of this important American biography and look at Tully’s books. They gave me some of my best weeks of reading this year and are all well worth your time. Until you find a copy, you can listen to the authors speak about Tully and their book in this radio interview or read about Tully and the biography in this excellent profile by Joanna Connors from the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

Jim Tully, on the MGM lot, (Photo courtesy of the family of Trilby J. Tully Beamon, Jim Tully Papers, Collection 250, Department of Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library, UCLA.)