This came today from England from a dear, dear friend, who got China Miéville, one of my favorite writers on this planet (see this review, or see this one), to sign a copy of his excellent novel Embassytown. I am so thankful and happy. I have not been well at all, so any support is nice, but this is just amazing. I would love to link you to her work, she is one of the best living poets I have read, but she does not publish. She is amazing and I am deeply honored.
So I’ve been discovering the amazing poetry of John Matthias. The book I’m reading (only book I was able to find in a library) is Northern Summer: New and Selected Poems 1963-1983 and I highly, HIGHLY recommend getting it, reading it etc. He’s damn, damn good. Here is one of the poems.
John Matthias: You Measure John
For posterity you measure John.
For the catalogue
you measure with a tape
and recognize yourself as woman
in the life of this man John, his death.
You measure for the catalogue
and their frames
thinking of the others
measuring his need
measuring his pride (who could not
measuring his gypsy caravans of children
as he went away to paint, badly,
the famous and the rich.
No, you do not like Augustus John.
Measuring the thickness
of a new biography you offer me
I think -
not. You tell it simply
and with no embellishments yourself.
It is an old story:
some man damages the lives of women
who would love him.
There are various excuses.
One is art.
This is a guest post by Meropi Papagheorghe, with only minor editing by yours truly. A Swedish translation of the post can be found here.
For a long time, the image of Romanian literature abroad had only a slight connection to the literary scene in Romania itself, with a string of famous exile writers not writing in Romanian at all. There is a long tradition of Romanian writers from Ionesco, Eliade and Cioran, to Marthe Bibesco, Ilarie Voronca, and Panait Istrati as well as contemporary author Dumitru Tsepeneag who published a great part if not all of their work in French. Similarly, in 2009 the Nobel Prize was awarded to Herta Müller, a Romanian born ethnic German writing about Communist Romania, but only in German, like Paul Celan and Rose Ausländer before her, and, more recently, Aglaja Veteranyi.
In the past decade things have been changing, with Romanian language authors being considered frontrunners for the highest of literary awards. Most prominently among these writers stands Mircea Cărtărescu. Cărtărescu’s masterwork, the Orbitor trilogy, spanning almost 1500 pages, is partly a magical-realist autobiography and partly a nightmarish look at the history of Romania through a metafictional, kaleidoscopic lens. It has been translated already into several European languages and met with staggering acclaim. However, Cărtărescu’s newly found success made him the subject of a ridiculous and slanderous campaign in 2012, led by the former opposition. The scandal had them stubbornly claiming that Cărtarescu’s international recognition was due to his being undeservedly promoted abroad using public funds because he allegedly catered to the former administration’s interests. He is very well known in Romania, but for all the wrong reasons. The book of his that is most famous in Romania is a slight short story collection titled De ce iubim femeile, published in between the middle and final volumes of his trilogy. Along with a few other journalistic publications which make up his post-Orbitor career, the collection speaks very little of his literary skill. The works which won him the reputation of being Nobel-worthy remain largely unread by the disinterested Romanian public, putting the author in vulnerable position as a public figure. It will come as no surprise if the new novel he announced to be working on (the first ‘serious’ literary work since Orbitor) will be met with more of the same toxic mix of hostility and ignorance upon its publication in Romania.
This hostility towards successful Romanian writers in their home country and the insistent politicizing of their work is also in many ways reminiscent of the plight of last century’s generation of exile and dissident writers whose names were diligently written off by the Communist regime. One such obscured writer is Norman Manea, whose clear emergence on the Romanian literary scene came only after the collapse of the regime, despite his success abroad. Aside from Cărtărescu, Manea is the only other author who could be considered a Nobel contender (although one could say that the stylistically similar Imre Kertesz won “his” Nobel prize already). He is the most widely translated Romanian writer to date and much of his work explores the harsh realities of Communist Romania. Older than Cărtărescu, his prose bears the unmistakable mark of writing under a totalitarian regime. Like many other writers of his time, the eyes of the censor are always part of the implicit audience of his books. New readers should probably pick up his best known work, the novelistic memoir Întoarcerea huliganului, which is much lighter in tone than the rest of his essays and fiction. He is a writer animated by his conscience, a political writer who never really wanted to be one. However, he is still not very well known domestically, a position that arguably guards him from attacks.
In spite of this disheartening political climate, contemporary Romanian literature seems to have found a coherent voice and is steadily thriving, with many new exciting names clamoring to be read. Over the past decade significant efforts have been made towards increasing the visibility of contemporary Romanian writers abroad and securing them the kind of recognition denied to them in a country where they are usually not judged by their talent or simply ignored. The year 2004 marked an important moment with the launching of the Ego. Proză and Fiction Ltd. series (the first having been designed exclusively for promoting débutante writers), both hosted by Polirom, one of Romania’s leading publishers. Grouping together a number of little known contemporary authors and offering them a space of their own to grow proved to be a successful move for Polirom. Among them were Filip Florian, Dan Lungu, Florina Ilis and Lucian Dan Teodorovici, all three of whom have in the mean time been translated into other European languages to very positive reviews. Alongside Polirom, Cartea Românească, one of the oldest brand names on the market, devoted to promoting Romanian literature for almost a century now, also helped consolidate the current generation of Romanian authors. The two houses merged in 2005.
While the many writers that rose from the lines Ego.Proză differ greatly, there seems to be a unifying preoccupation with personal memory and the clash between the country’s communist past and its post-communist present. Novels such as Teodorovici’s Matei Brunul and Filip Florian’s debut Degete mici reflect directly on what the former regime created and left behind. The first explores a subdued identity crisis of a former political prisoner plagued by puzzling recollections, while the second follows the uncovering of a communist mass grave and its impact on the local community surrounding the site. On a grander scale, there is also Horia Ursu’s Asediul Vienei which deals with the changes undergone by the much fought over multi-ethnic region of Transylvania in the aftermath of the Second World War. Narrowing down the scope, one of Dan Lungu’s best known novels, Sunt o babă comunistă, offers the perspective of a regime nostalgic whose best years belong to a past she is expected to hate, and T.O. Bobe’s Cum mi-am petrecut vacanța de vară pieces together an account of a post-communist childhood as seen through the eyes of a fourth grader, complete with spelling mistakes and naïve but disarming observations. In a similar vein and channelling to some extent William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, Florina Ilis’ novel Cruciada copiilor presents a fresco of contemporary Romanian society following a group of school pupils over the course of an overlong train ride to the sea side. At the same time, the communist childhood is a theme not at all foreign to contemporary Romanian authors, perhaps most famously tackled by Cărtărescu. Following in his footsteps is Simona Popescu’s autobiographical novel Exuvii, which evokes subtle moments of awareness and loosely pieces together a coming of age story in poetic prose. The autobiographical element is also strongly present in Vasile Ernu’s work, a Soviet-born ethnic Romanian whose debut Născut in URSS dwells on the contrast between two communist spaces. Another example is Filip Florian’s Băiuțeii. Written together with his brother Matei Florian, it offers a vivid, nostalgic picture of a working class Bucharest district in the 70′s and 80′s, alternating between the voices of the two authors.
Filip Florian also tackles another direction in Romanian fiction with his 2008 effort Zilele regelui, a historical novel set in the Kingdom of Romania in 1866. There are several other novelists writing in this genre, such as Ștefan Agopian who also approaches the 19th century in his novel Tache de catifea, only from a magic-realist point of view. Most noteworthy however (and not necessarily just for literary reasons) is Varujan Vosganian, who used to be most well known domestically and abroad for his long political career that culminated in his short stint as Secretary of Economy from 2007-2008. In 2009 he published his first (and so far his only) novel, Cartea șoaptelor, which became a surprise success. The book is a significant literary achievement dealing with the Armenian genocide. Unlike Franz Werfel’s The Forty Days of Musa Dagh, Vosganian deals with this topic from a more oblique angle by assembling a tapestry of stories illustrating the plight of the Armenian people in the past century. Cartea șoaptelor has recently been translated into various European languages. Another book that needs to be mentioned here is Florina Ilis’s most recent novel Viețile paralele, a biography of Romania’s national poet Mihai Eminescu covering both his life and his legend and spanning over 150 years of Romanian history. It creatively mixes authentic documents with fictional speculation, painting a transcendent portrait of the writer.
Critically acclaimed but overlooked by its target audience, Romanian contemporary fiction has experienced a creative boom in recent years and is counting on international recognition to drag it out of the niche it has been cornered in at home. The styles of the writers range from the gorgeous hallucinatory realism of Cărtărescu to the sparse, careful prose of Teodorovici and Florian and the supple humor of Dan Lungu. This summer marked the translation of numerous Romanian authors into all kinds of European languages and one can only hope it will only pave the ground for more such endeavors. The writers mentioned above are some of the many living and writing in Romania today who deserve having their work widely read and translated.
Looking for commentary on Pierre Drieu La Rochelle, a writer I had not previously read (but do now own a novel by), I found a brief, but very good essay by Philippe Sollers which included this paragraph that I found understandably interesting:
Le suicide, pour Drieu, est une “foi sans défaut”, une religion d’immortalité nourrie par une méditation intense à partir de la métaphysique indienne. On tue le Moi, on rejoint le Soi, pas de Dieu, pas de péché, la possibilité d’une “merveille” à la portée de chacun. La dernière journée de Drieu à Paris, sur les boulevards ou aux Tuileries, est inoubliable. Il va rentrer chez lui, avaler du “luminal” et ouvrir le gaz, il a toujours mené, sans que personne s’en doute, “une vie libre et dérobée” (beaucoup de bordels), il fait l’éloge de la solitude : “Je prête à la solitude toutes sortes de vertus qu’elle n’a pas toujours ; je la confonds avec le recueillement et la méditation, la délicatesse de cœur et d’esprit, la sévérité vis-à-vis de soi-même tempérée d’ironie, l’agilité à comparer et à déduire.”
In yesterday’s review of China Miéville’s Dial H, I mentioned the regrettable dearth of female creators and characters in the New 52 relaunch. The difference to other publishers like Marvel (most notable probably is Kelly Sue DeConnick’s (female) Captain Marvel run, which so far (I am two trades in) is absolutely fantastic) is noticeable. Now, DC has announced a major new event, the first since they relaunched all titles. So, how do female creators fare there? Sue from DC Women Kicking Ass did the math:
Forever Evil is a huge event. In September the publisher will have 52 issues that will have villain on the cover. It will also have a seven issue mini series, Forever Evil, written by Geoff Johns and drawn by David Finch.
That’s a lot of writers and artists.
Just for the 52 issues appearing in September the number of credits is mind-boggling. I counted more than 150 credits and that includes the 20 artists that will be participating in Justice League #23.3: Dial E.
With only six of the artists announced for that issue, here’s the total on female creators.
Total female creators credits for Forever Evil announced to date:
So. There’s that.
Miéville, China; Mateus Santolouco, Riccardo Burchielli et al. (2013), Dial H: Into You, DC Comics
Wood, Dave; Jim Mooney et al. (2010), Showcase Presents: Dial H for Hero, DC Comics
Pfeifer, Will; Kano et al. (2003), H-E-R-O: Powers and Abilities, DC Comics
So, while I am a fan of comic books and do read quite a few of them, I am still frequently overwhelmed by the incredible amount of characters and complicated back stories. DC Comics is especially infamous for not just having complicated stories, but even multiple realities and universes, which they then attempted to collapse in amazingly readable and fun but convoluted “events”. Then, suddenly, DC decided to do away with all the accrued history and complications by relaunching all of its titles in 2011, calling the new set of books “the new 52”. This reset the stories on all their major titles, giving them new origin stories, and new slants. It also turned the DC universe somewhat more male, due to the fact that female creators were vastly underrepresented among the slate of amazing writers and artists, and also due to the fact that a lot of female characters either completely vanished, like fan favorite Stephanie Brown, or were declared dead, like Renée Montoya. Other female characters were revived as weaker or “sexier” versions of their old selves. And it’s not just female characters. The first waves of comics to come out seemed to have a decidedly conservative slant in how they were positioned vis-a-vis recent character history. One example is Judd Winnick’s Catwoman run, as compared to the more recent history of the character in the hands of Ed Brubaker, Darwyn Cooke and others. However, DC also did something very interesting: they decided to use the bright lights of public attention in the wake of the relaunch in order to relaunch a bunch of much less well known characters, some of whom were pulled from DC’s more alternative imprints Vertigo and Wildstorm.
Frankenstein, for example, last seen in Grant Morrison’s book Seven Soldiers of Victory, was given his own title (written by the great, great Jeff Lemire), as were Animal Man and Swamp Thing, both of whom had iconic runs with Vertigo. The characters thus revived are not all equally well known. While Swamp Thing is probably one of the best known ‘alternative’ properties of DC, they also offered much less well known characters and titles a spot in the limelight. One of these characters/properties is Dial H for Hero, a decidedly odd kind of title, with a very inconsistent publishing history. His revival could have gone either way. DC, however, asked China Miéville to write this title, and the result is incredibly good. I have been reading quite a few comic books during the past year, and some extremely good ones among them (I’ll probably review some of them in the near future), but Miéville’s Dial H is easily one of the best, if not the best among this crop of really excellent comics that have been coming out. If you have been following Miéville’s career (as I have), this will likely not have come as a surprise to you. Miéville has established himself as one of the leading contemporary writers of science fiction, and probably one of the better novelists in the UK regardless of genre. Even considering the regrettable duds like Kraken, his bibliography is full of inventive, smart, extraordinarily well written novels. The news that he would be turning his attention to comic books in order to write a title of his own had me giddy and excited for a year. I spent part of that year reading up on the history of the character or characters that would be featured in Miéville’s book. And as I found out, that is a peculiar history.
Limited as I am to trade publications, I will focus on only two books centered on the “Dial H”-property. There were small instances of the title resurfacing in between, they were not, however, collected as trades. The first time comic book readers came upon the Dial H for Hero stories was in 1965, in the pages of “House of Mystery #165”. The stories featured a boy called Robby Reed who finds a strange apparatus that “looks like a dial…made of a peculiar alloy….with a strange inscription on it”. The “young genius” decipers the inscription running along the side of the apparatus and finds that it asks its user to “dial the letters h-e-r-o”. Intrepid young Robby Reed does just that and, lo and behold, he turns into a superhero. His whole physical appearance is transformed: he has become a giant, complete with a superhero uniform (that even has letters on the front) and somehow he knows that the hero he transformed into is called “Giantboy”. Using the powers of the character, he thwarts some evil villains, and returning home, dials o-r-e-h in order to transform back into his bespectacled mild mannered self. The boy turning into an adult superhero is highly reminiscent of DC’s Captain Marvel, which is a boy called Billy Bateson who turns into the superhero Captain Marvel by saying “Shazam!”. However, as far as I know, Captain Marvel (sometimes also just named “Shazam”) is always more or less the same guy. Robby Reed’s dial, however, turns him into a different superhero every time he gives his dial a spin. There is so much that is bad about this title, from the casual racism (at one point he turns into “an Indian super-hero – Chief Mighty Arrow” and is even issued a companion, “a winged injun pony”. When he is upset, he shouts “Holy Massacre” and wishes he could “scalp” a monster) to sexism (Robby’s love interest find the dial, dials “h-e-r-o-i-n-e” and turns into “Gem Girl” despite Robby’s warnings that the dial is not a toy, and he ends up forcing her to dial herself back into a girl “before she gets any more ideas”), and overall ridiculous writing. However, it’s some of the most incredibly inventive work I have ever seen.
Robby transforms into heroes that make sense, like Giantboy or The Human Bullet etc., but in one issue he transforms into geometric shapes with arms and legs, for example. Coming up with new heroes (although you can dial up old ones too, it’s basically a randomized selection out of a finite, but large pool) forced the writer of the books, Dave Wood, to dig deep. And Jim Mooney’s art perfectly realizes Wood’s wacky vision. It’s just so much ridiculous fun, and the Showcase volume is well worth your while. If you want an idea of the silly fun on offer, click here to see a selection of covers. After a while the Dial H for Hero stories petered out. There were various small scale revivals, including one in the 1980s by the great Marv Wolfman, also called Dial H for Hero, but since none of them have been published as trades, I can’t really comment on them. They introduced more characters spinning the dial and further enlarged the pool of super-heroes. I’ve had a look at the Wiki summary of Wolfman’s run and it seems delightfully insane, and it seems to have more of a coherent plot than the Wood/Mooney version, which is basically a gonzo one-off kind of thing in each issue.
Even more coherent (and initially at least considerably more down to earth) is the 2003 incarnation called H-E-R-O, written by Will Pfeifer and beautifully illustrated by Kano. That run went on for 22 issues, but for some reason, only issues 1-6 have been collected as a trade (called H-E-R-O: Powers and Abilities). Pfeifer’s run features different people finding the dial and examines what happens to their lives when you add the opportunity to transform into a superhero. There is a young adult mired in a mediocre life, “making sundaes at minimum wage”. In order to impress a girl, and more generally as an attempt to “be someone”, he uses the Dial to unimpressive and even disastrous effect. A business man finding the dial becomes obsessed with it. A girl uses it to become popular at her new school, etc. The book was a bit of a letdown, even though the writing and art was just so much better than the Wood/Mooney version. But Pfeifer got rid of the ridiculous fun and inventiveness and infused the whole book with a dour morality, mostly lectures about being content with who you are and knowing your limits and being nice and industrious within those limits. Much more than the original book, the dialing device becomes a metaphor for situations that we all face in our lives etc. etc. I’m boring myself just describing it. For all the good writing and wonderful art that went into this book, it’s hard to recommend, because Pfeifer so consistently underwhelms. The idea of the dial is one of the most liberating literary devices I have ever seen, and to see it used in this pedestrian, moral, middle-class way was disheartening. If that was the direction that the Dial H for Hero story was going, I was worried about Miéville’s run presenting more of the same. Silly me. China Miéville blows Pfeifer’s run clean out of the water.
Miéville renames the series Dial H, and provides a spin on it that is equal parts original and respectful to the Silver Age original. The protagonist of the first trade is called Nelson Jent, and he’s an obese unemployed middle aged man, who, one night, is almost beat up by a group of lowlifes and, attempting to call the police from a phone booth, transforms into Boy Chimney. From that moment the reader knows that this is something else than the other titles in the Dial H for Hero series. And it starts with small details: Mieville, like many writers, offers us the thoughts of the characters that he focuses on. And as Jent transforms into Boy Chimney, his thoughts seem to transform, as well. Strange fragments enter them, and as Boy Chimney proceeds to beat up that gang, he appears to have a dialog with the consciousness of Nelson Jent. Additionally, Boy Chimney is very clearly not a super hero, as all the previous titles imagined them. He is a strange creature that has uncommon strength and unusual powers and abilities, among them the ability to use and command smoke. But it’s only Jent’s consciousness that keeps Boy Chimney from outright killing the brutal assailants in the alley. It feels less like Jent is genuinely transforming into a super hero, and more like a kind of symbiosis. And there is another basic difference: Jent doesn’t have to transform back by dialing the letters in reverse. He automatically returns to his normal self, “into the worst identity of all”, after a certain, variable amount of time has passed. Apart from this, the book’s early parts seem to be fairly straightforward. There’s a villain with a secret plan and he and Jent’s super heroes keep meeting and fighting. And then, the book quickly goes off the rails into the most incredible insanity. The villain, it turns out, is a “nullomancer”, a kind of wizard of nothingness, able to conjure and control nothingness, and her plan involves channeling an ancient beast called the Abyss, a strange thing composed of nothingness, but at the same time, containing universes.
If this sounds absurd, I can assure you that Miéville makes it work on the page, and in his origin story, which closes out the trade, he offers a brilliant explanation for what the dial basically does. It’s hard to give you more details without spoiling the book, so I won’t, but the upshot of it all is that Miéville managed to tell a story that makes use of the incredible artistic liberties that the material has to offer, and yet it’s a book very determined to make sense, in multiple ways. What’s more, the art is not a let down. Would it have been a better book with JH Williams III at the helm? Possibly. But Mateus Santolouco, of whom I have never heard, does an excellent job. I was especially impressed by his work on the super-hero identities invoked by the dial. They are the most crucial visual element of the book, as they have to appear both plausible and iconical – and absurdly odd at the same time. As Boy Chimney leaps from the phone booth he is instantly alive on the page, as a scary, off the wall character. Almost as important are the colors, and Tanya and Richard Horie have done a simply magnificent job throughout the book. In my review of Brian Wood’s DMZ I have lamented the fact that the art seemed but a servant to Wood’s writing in the book, making for a less than great reading experience. That is not the case with Dial H. Even though Miéville is a famous award winning novelist, Santolouco brings a very distinct artistic vision to bear. The sketches in the back show how he worked on and tweaked the look of various superhero identities. Santolouco’s achievement is thrown into even starker relief by issue #0, which presents a kind of origin story, and is included at the back of the trade. Riccardo Burchielli valiantly tries to do justice to Miéville’s amazing script, but it’s an overall disappointing effort, compared to Santolouco’s work that came before.
The book has so many ideas, and one of them is an obsession with identity. With superheroes, we talk a lot about identities, secret and public ones, but that is usually a naming issue: what name do I use? What mask do I wear. Alternative takes on superhero narratives (cf. Millar’s Kick-Ass) suggest that wearing masks is liberating, but they don’t really discuss or problematize the core issue of identity. Miéville, as all his work so far has also shown, is very aware of how identity is tied up in physical forms and in cultural and social ties. The characters that Jent turns into appear to have their own memories, and while it turns out to be an issue more of colonialism and appropriation than of sociology and psychology, Miéville opens wide the doors for these discussions. In doing so, I think, he goes beyond even writers like Morrison, as he uses the iconicity and language of big publisher super-hero comics and examines it carefully. This is not another one of those books critical of ‘superhero myths’, and it doesn’t offer a grimy reality based taken on super heroes. There are enough of those around. No, Miéville embraces a lot of the central qualities of the genre and uses its language in order to interrogate it and tell an absorbing story at the same time. The best news? There is much more to come. For all the density of this book, it merely collects the first issues in an ongoing run. The next trade is due in January 2014. You should be reading this book.
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