Alan Moore and Oscar Zarate: A Small Killing

Moore, Alan; Oscar Zarate (2003), A Small Killing, Avatar Press
ISBN 1-59291-009-2

Alan Moore is one of the titans of the comic book industry and probably the best living writer in the business, especially after Frank Miller went off the rails. Unlike a few of the leading writers/artists of alternative comics (if you read this blog regularly, you’ll know I am a raving fan of Charles Burns’ and Jeff Smith’s work), Moore managed, throughout his career, to touch on a truly vast array of notes and genres, and rare is the unsuccessful book penned by Moore. With whatever artist he collaborated, whether he worked on a creator-owned book or for DC Comics, whether he wrote an elegiac Superman story or the pornographic narratives of Lost Girls, Moore always came through and produced a standout work, one that was both recognizably his, and that gave the artists he worked with the space and freedom to shine, as well. A Small Killing is no exception to this rule. Originally published in 1991, it is a fascinating work of art, both a compelling story, as well as a intriguing, seductive, colorful maelstrom of a comic. Both the writing and the art are exceptional, and the overall product, short as it is, is a tremendously powerful, awfully dense political and creative statement, which is both completely original, and full of echoes to contemporary and more classical art and literature. Although its content seems mired in the 1980s, since it tells a story about a yuppie’s nervous breakdown, replete with cultural and political criticism of 80s politics, it actually exchanges the narrow scope of contemporary reference for history and psychology. It is not surprising that this book has been repeatedly picked up by various publishers and been reprinted several times since the 1991 edition, then published by Victor Gollancz, dropped out of circulation. This book is both terrific and terrifying, and it’s an understatement to say I recommend it to everyone.

In the coming weeks, I will also review Alan Moore’s run on Swamp Thing enthusiastically, but one of the most interesting things about A Small Killing is the fact that, unlike, say, Swamp Thing or Supreme, it’s really not a graphic novel tailored to and of primary interest for readers of the genre. The reason for this is mostly Oscar Zarate’s stunning art. Zarate’s pages, if one associates them with other artists in the industry at all, reminded me most of José Munoz’ (who is probably the main influence on Zarate) or Bill Sienkiewicz’ work (say, Electra: Assassin or Stray Toasters). But while the latter is a well-known artist with a thick portfolio of excellent and popular work, many, like me, will draw a blank where the name of Oscar Zarate is concerned. Even searches in online venues come up almost empty. Reading them we learn he has illustrated a handful of books, penciled a few short stories and co-created A Small Killing. While it’s hardly surprising that a masterpiece like this would overshadow the rest of an artist’s work, it is indeed odd that there doesn’t appear to be much of a ‘rest’ if one’s resumé includes work as singular and powerful as this. To return to the book at hand, the first thing you notice is that Zarate did not, as is usual in the genre, pencil, ink and color the panels, Instead, he appears to have painted it. Indeed, the contours and depth that an inker works with, the use a good inker makes of different degrees of clarity and visibility, of shadows, of light- and of darkness, Zarate hands over to colors. The strongest contours in A Small Killing are those of Zarate’s intrepid pencil and what appears to be a very fine ink brush. Some panels are almost exclusively penciled, with few colors entering the hailstorm of leaden lines, some seem to be completely in color, with contrast between different fields of color as the only kind of contour and boundary. From panels I found elsewhere on the web, I gather that this is, indeed, Zarate’s style, and that other writers have had comics created for them that looked similar.

However, the combination of a lack of a large back catalog of work, and the singular nature of this book right here made me feel this this style was created just for this story, these characters. The small fact that it wasn’t isn’t really important. Fact is, Moore wrote a story that Zarate’s art fit like a glove, and vice versa. It is not often that calling an artist a co-creator makes as much sense as it does here. It is almost impossible to say whose contribution is more important for the overall effect of the book, but Zarate’s style seems most specific to the kind of writing and thinking that A Small Killing represents, especially the way that Zarate’s swirling, disturbingly slanted art recalls early 20th century artists like Otto Dix but especially Max Beckmann (pre-1930s). Of course, Zarate’s work is very comic-like in the simple garishness of some of his colors and the lack of figural complexities, but the basic structure of the colors and the way he treats characters and actions in individual panels are highly reminiscent of Beckmann’s work especially where Beckmann depicts groups of people in bars. I found it impossible to read this book quickly, I think it needs to be savored page by page, and not only those pages that include a crowd tableau. Zarate slips his protagonist in and out of the artwork, sometimes as a blueish character in front of a screechingly orange mob, sometimes merging with crowds or background, sometimes threatened by erasure. Faceless sketches of people are inserted and glorious full-page visions. There’s really everything here, but the strongest part, and arguably the most important part for how the story is perceived and read, is the way Zarate treats crowds: a nameless mass of grotesque gluttony and vapid sensationalism. The slants and lights in many of those images make it impossible not to think of Dix or Beckmann.

Here the undecidability concerning Moore’s and Zarate’s contributions kicks in again, because part of that association may also be due to Moore’s story. Moore wrote, as many writers in the late 1980s and earlyy1990s, a harsh indictment of the shallow and chintzy 1980s culture. Of these writers, the most successful was probably Martin Amis, who rose to fame on the strength of his 1980s satires. But Amis’ brand of topical writing doesn’t always suit Moore very well. He doesn’t have Amis’ narrow obsession with the smallness of minds, or Amis’ bitterly biting pen. It’s not that Moore doesn’t try to be topical now and then, but he’s always best when the topical bleeds over into the allegorical, mystical, strange or the plain personal. Lucky for us as readers, and for A Small Killing, this is exactly what he does here, and it’s one of the main reasons why the book is still so readable today. Unlike Amis, Moore is a generous, easily puzzled writer, and this insecurity and openness enables him to write tales about the abyss in us and our culture without damning it all to hell. The story is simple enough, but engineered in a complex manner. It involves Timothy Hole (which is “pronounced ‘Holly’, actually”, “it’s a sort of English thing”), a middle-aged yuppie who works in advertising, and is quite talented at it. As Hole lands a new job and a great contract, marketing a fictional soda (a stand-in, quite explicitly, for Coca Cola or Pepsi) to Glasnost-era Russia. This set-up, and a few stray lines here and there may make the reader think of Billy Wilder’s One, Two, Three (1961) but laughs are scarcer in Moore’s and Zarate’s book. Bewildered by the difficulties this job entails, Hole suffers a nervous breakdown and encounters a small boy, apparently bent on killing him. After appearing in the middle of the road one dark evening, causing Hole to swerve and crash, he appears to follow him, menacingly, for the rest of the book. Hole develops a paranoia, screaming whenever he’s sure to have caught a glimpse of the unknown dark-haired child, sweating with fear whenever he doesn’t see him.

There would be a Twilight Zone-style cheesiness to this mysterious boy, if Moore hadn’t made sure that we all knew pretty soon who that boy was. So instead of hurrying through the book to find out what would happen to the book’s protagonist, we watch as the environment changes around Hole’s increasingly frantic mind, and we follow the flashbacks down their path to Hole’s past. Hole, who is from Sheffield, which is a British industrial town that aw its industry fail in the 1980s, moved first to London and then to New York. Mad with terror, Hole retraces his steps in the present to the places of his past, flying first to London, then taking the train to a more affluent part of Sheffield and finally walking to the poor quarters where he grew up as a child. There is no real explanation for him taking this trip, but as his memory travels back in time, so does he, in a way. Moore takes the metaphor of space and travel that discussions of flashbacks and memory entail, and mirrors it in literal travel. At the end of the book, in a revelation that is devastating for Hole, both levels come together in an epiphany of sorts. The colors of Zarate’s mad tableaux of crowds and landscapes reflect Hole’s own disturbed mind, and his alienation not only from others but from himself, from his own ideas. Hole is really unpleasant protagonist, we don’t much care for him, he betrays people, cheats them and cheats on them, a truly shallow individual who apparently found his niche in advertising. There is the palpable (and explicit) influence of existentialism on the book, but despite a few similarities, Timothy Hole is no Antoine Roquentin, and the book ends on a different note. A Small Killing is about self-discovery, about how people can change as they age and the lies they tell themselves about their own past. As the world is subsumed by Hole’s feverish brain, and past relationships with women, his parents or mentors are seen to have failed due to his increasingly uncaring and empty emotional state, we as readers are drawn into Zarate’s terrifying whirlwind of colors and lines.

But, really, it’s more than just personal. Two aspects in particular are worth mentioning. One is Moore’s mastery of various registers of speech: this skill shines most in the large, full-page crowd panels, which are flooded by small pieces of dialogue, ad culture nitwittery, empty 1980s hipsterism and other bits. The way Moore zeroes in on those moments, and the way he makes a highly economic use of them within the larger structure of A Small Killing is so well realized that it reminded me personally of William Gaddis’ use of salon banter in The Recognitions. The other aspect is political. With a handful of deft allusions and hints, Moore and Zarate settle the book firmly within a fixed historical and political context, as the book was written and published at a time when the United States were governed by George Bush père and the United Kingdom by Margaret Thatcher (and Thatcherite PM John Major). Thatcher is especially significant as Moore connects modern apolitical culture with the demise of a traditionally left-wing worker town, and Hole’s betrayal of himself with that same change. This sounds topical, but I don’t have a personal context for Thatcherism, and yet it still works. Hole can be made to stand for any political peregrine who endorsed ideals as a young person yet swore off them as he grew older and more successful. The central focus of A Small Killing is on the was our core beliefs about society are linked to core beliefs of ourselves. In a book of dichotomies, of overlapping levels, this is one of the most important. I’m not sure this book has been very influential or important for the genre or literature in general, but as a work of art, it is amazing, and very powerful. Alan Moore’s enormous body of work casts a large shadow, but that should not be an excuse for readers to ignore or shun a small, less widely publicized masterpiece such as A Small Killing.

A short personal note. As I am trying to finish two manuscripts and getting back into reviewing books, I have a hospital bill to pay off, which means all kinds of issues for me. If you have a buck or two to spare, I would be more than thankful. There is a paypal button on the right hand side of this page. That’s just in case you feel charitable. As it is, I am happy enough about every single one of my readers. There are more of you than I ever expected, even through the dry months in the past year, and I am thoroughly humbled. Thank you all.

Time, Time Travel and the Conventional Narrative

Click here to find an intriguing essay by writer Frederick Reiken on the subject of flashbacks in fiction and the treatment of time(travel) in such books. Below an excerpt:

What a conventional story-oriented narrative usually employs is a literary application of the temporal construct known as “block time” or a “block universe” – in which time is envisioned spatially, as if it were a four-dimensional space-time map. That’s why we accept, without hesitation, the simple literary technique of a flashback. Within the spatialized time frame of a novel, the effect of jumping to a flashback is less like going back in time and more like getting on an airplane in New Jersey and then getting off in Texas. For a more exaggerated way of thinking about block time, consider protagonist Billy Pilgrim in Kurt Vonnegut’s landmark novel Slaughterhouse-Five. Billy has become “unstuck in time,” and has no control over which part of his life he will wind up in next. All the moments of his life — present, past, future — can be arrived at as if they were geographic places. What I’ll suggest is that a conventional, realistic work of literary fiction makes use of the same apparatus minus the spasmodic time travel. Instead of the protagonist becoming unstuck in time, the author simply moves the reader around within the block-time map. In other words, the reader is the one who becomes unstuck, because the story can go anywhere it wants.

Poems on translating Poetry (2)

Евге́ний Евтуше́нко: О ПЕРЕВОДАХ

Не страшен вольный перевод
Ничто не вольно, если любишь.
Но если музыку погубишь,
То это мысль всю переврет.
Я не за ловкость шулеров,
Я за поэтов правомочность
Есть точность жалких школяров
Но есть и творческая точность.
Не дай школярством себя стеснить
Побольше музыки, свободы!
Я верю в стихи
Не верю в просто переводы.

poems on translating poetry (1)

Zbigniew Herbert: On Translating Poetry

Like a clumsy bumblebee
he alights on a flower
bending the fragile stem
he elbows his way
through rows of petals
like pages of a dictionary
he wants in
where the fragrance and sweetness are
and though he has a cold
and can’t taste anything
he pushes on
until he bumps his head
against the yellow pistil

and that’s as far as he gets
it’s too hard
to push through the calyx
into the root
so the bee takes off again
he emerges swaggering
loudly humming:
I was in there
and those
who don’t take his word for it
can take a look at his nose
yellow with pollen

this, translated by Alissa Valles, is from the stupendously amazing Collected Poems 1956-1998.

A.L. Kennedy: What Becomes

Kennedy, A.L. (2010), What Becomes, Vintage
ISBN 978-0-099-49406-5

I deeply love and admire the work of A. L. Kennedy, the Scottish writer of short stories, novels and screenplays, as well as part-time stand-up comic. Thus, the following (enthusiastic) review may be slightly biased. However, I don’t think I overreach by calling Kennedy not just a master of her craft, but a great writer, a rare writer. There is, for example, her versatility: in her novels and stories, A. L. Kennedy consistently proves herself to be a writer interested in and adapt at using complex literary techniques, including even being able to nimbly slip into a smooth postmodern playfulness at times, but I value Kennedy most for being an emotive, direct, personal writer who keeps moving and surprising me. At her best, she is able to command a language that seems simple and direct, almost autobiographical, but is actually the product of a writer in full control of her craft. If we compare her work at the sentence level in her most recent collection What Becomes with other contemporary short story writers, for example Bonnie Jo Campbell, finalist for the 2009 National Book Award with her collection American Salvage, we quickly see how unerring Kennedy’s syntactic precision is. There are very few living writers who can boast of writing so simple, so seemingly indulgent and emotional sentences, that nevertheless are anything but indulgent. Their craft isn’t obvious in the sense of simple musicality or strong stylistic oddities, it’s the way Kennedy adjusts and tucks at her syntax sentence after sentence, length, music, slipping from hypotactic into terse, punning paratactic sentences and back, whatever she does, everything is just right, everything seems intentional and careful, while writers like Campbell work with slabs of language, leaving a rough, muddy surface.

But language does not take center stage in Kennedy’s stories, the stories and the characters within them do. And here’s where her success is most visible: she almost always manages to completely inhibit her characters, no matter how different they are. Her writing is a writing from inside, a writing that does not use her characters’ particulars to hang a moral tale from them, she doesn’t present them on a literary platter so they’ll be of use them as objects judged and portrayed from the outside. Kennedy writes from within, and she does it with humor, and a quiet understanding. Of course, on the other hand, she doesn’t just serve up some random slice of life. Like most writers, Kennedy, too, has very specific obsessions, and a very specific slant on life, art and writing. Although the exact focus of her obsessions varies from book to book, all her work is united by a very distinct literary vision, and she has managed to improve upon her expression of this vision as her work slowly grew and started to develop a voice of its own. More and more, Kennedy has moved from expansive books like the magnificent Everything You Need, which took up too many issues to be perfectly successful in all of them, to far more precise collections like Indelible Acts, which focuses explicitly upon bodies and the acts (or rather: performances) we subject them to. Then, her previous novel Paradise looked on dependencies, alcoholism and the unraveling of a life in an unraveling of social relationships, just as her next novel, Day, was concerned with memory and violence. Reading Kennedy today is reading a writer who knows what she can do with language, and is perfectly comfortable in her own literary idiom.

That idiom includes idiosyncrasies that might bother first time readers, yet both they and veteran readers of Kennedy’s work will likely see that there’s a writer at work in What Becomes who is able to blend a vast variety of voices and devices into stories that feel extremely natural and direct, whether they are narrated by men or women. Kennedy is a writer of the interior, thoroughly, untiringly exploring the horribleness of empty contemporary lives. Or rather: lives that are commonly viewed and narrated as empty. The characters in What Becomes are filled with life, with hope and with dreams. Let down by partners, friends or down on their luck, they nevertheless try (and retry) to connect, to work things out. They get lost in the mechanics and particulars of the mundane, the cast reality of the objects that surround us, the objects that complement us. In the story “Confectioner’s Gold” (one of the collection’s best) there is a couple on the brink of failure, who get together one night, and gorge themselves on a lavish, decadent meal. They don’t enjoy themselves, they don’t eat because they love eating or spending time with one another, they eat because eating means not talking. This story is partly narrated by the husband, who, as we learned earlier in the story, in an unusually plain fashion, identifies with blind people he sees passing in front of his house. He ‘feels’ blind, although he isn’t. An angry man, angry with life, angry with his situation as a man, a husband, as a white person, he runs on entitlement, and we get the impression (though it is never spelled out) that the loss of privilege that progress forces on him makes him angry. There is no space in him to consider other people’s predicaments, people who are really handicapped. He represents the norm and his anger feels justified to him.

People like that husband, and disintegrating relationships like his, are, as in his case, created as a consummate mixture of interior and exterior explanations and visions. “Confectioner’s Gold” is a great story to use as example, because it is quite explicit about issues that are part of the underpinnings of Kennedy’s writing, and of the way it is connected to literary and cultural contexts. On the one hand, there are objects that are made to serve as extensions of the failing, miserable bodies of Kennedy’s protagonists. On the other hand, there is the city, the treatment if which sometimes seems to refer directly to writers like Walter Benjamin, and his theories (e.g. about the flâneur and his role in comprehending metropolitan reality). Benjamin is also important in his treatment of history, and his doubts about the veracity of accounts of the past, or rather: their reliability when dissociated from the present. What Becomes is very much about the future, as its title (which alludes to Jimmy Ruffin’s hit single “What becomes of the broken hearted” or rather the idiomatic expression that has been spun from it) demonstrates unequivocally. Although all of the stories have an uneasy but important link to the past, whether it is some unspoken, but still menacing falling-out, as in “Confectioner’s Gold”, or a past relationship, as in the title story, or an episode from childhood as in “Saturday Teatime”: the past is never quite confronted, except through the shambles it has made of the present. Sometimes, Kennedy’s characters try and cope with the past without confronting it at all, sometimes they try to mend it, sometimes it just ambushes them in a quiet moment of self-reflection. The central question of all these stories, in the face of a threatening, dark, unspeakable past, is: what now? How do I behave once my life has been broken by those once dear to me, or by myself? What will I do?

In all her work Kennedy has never asked this question so clearly, so urgently, and in many ways: this, I think, makes What Becomes her most old-fashioned work (and, incidentally, the book of hers that is least concerned with death.). In the tradition of ancient philosophy, this collection of stories take a look at the ars bene vivendi or the ars vitae, the art of how to live, the art of life. Now, this is a common theme in literature, and many writers focus on this aspect, but the concentration and precision of A. L. Kennedy’s new collection is note- and praiseworthy. The answer to the question of ‘What now?’ turns out, often as not, to be a question of whether or not to confront the past as represented by people we once knew and loved, people who let us down or whom we let down. Some people do both, as the protagonist in the title story, who confronts his former wife in her kitchen, cooking a meal, trying to persevere, to rekindle a flame long gone. On the other hand, once he starts to really comprehend that their marriage has failed, that they really are no longer an item, he flees into the obscure embrace of a cinema, preferring to sit in a dark room, while a movie plays in silence, instead of getting on with his life, forging a future. In this story, as in many others, the protagonist’s bodily reality almost merges with the objects around him, the tools he uses to create a reality for him. There is the blood that he sheds on the kitchen floor (and on the knife he uses to cut up vegetables), and there’s the broken movie reel in the cinema that fails to supply the movie with sound, mirroring his own self-imposed deafness. The protagonist cannot provide answers on how to deal with disaster, but his very helplessness is instructive, and the emotional core of the book.

Other stories, like “Wasps”, the short, devastating tale of a married man’s ‘second family’, the result of an affair that eventually metamorphosed into the family he visits on some weekends and on the occasional holiday, seem to come up with answers: “[t]his is a way to be ready when he finally doesn’t come back”; answers however, that aren’t helpful or teachable, that are testaments of a similar helplessness, a similar lack of resolve and willpower. This all the protagonists of What Becomes share: the gap between what they know or intuit should be done, and what they can get themselves to do. Even those whose acts show a willingness not to engage with the issues, to ignore them until they hopefully vanish of their own accord, even they clearly know how they should live, since their acts are mere acting out of rote roles and performed joylessly, mechanically. Even “Marriage”, the story that I feel is the harshest of the bunch, the most cynical, implies, in its blatant display of cynicism, how to live well, although its characters aren’t able to. The story, which closes with the firm assertion “This is exactly what it looks like. Marriage.”, portrays an estranged couple, which is brought together by an act of domestic violence. Hitting his wife in the face, the husband, who’s the story’s protagonist, not only manages to arouse himself, but also to bridge a gap of affections that had opened between him and his wife. The event leaves him as bruised emotionally as his wife is physically, and the final scene has them hold on to one another for comfort, for strength, to endure the present, and one another. Although in “Wasps”, the lover watches her almost-husband leave into a rainy night, holding on only to herself, while the lovers in “Marriage” have each other, it’s hard to say who’s lonelier.

dsc_3088It is quite the miracle that Kennedy can pull off stories like this one without having to enter precious melodrama (except for maybe one or two slips), and also without subscribing to the well-worn workshop mantra “show don’t tell”. In my reading experience, that mantra is helpful if writers lack the creative urge and talent to make ‘telling’ work. Stories are quickly uncluttered if one concentrates on ‘showing’, which also facilitates further editing. Raymond Carver is a rather notorious example of all this. When in 2009, the Library of America published Carver’s Collected Stories, the editors Stull and Caroll decided to include “Beginners”, a version of Carver’s first major collection of stories that did not contain his long-time editor Gordon Lish’s cuts. Lish is famous for having truncated Carver’s writing to the essentials, even adding and changing phrases to make the cuts fit and retain the mood. The resulting stories are breathtaking masterpieces of concision, both moving and trimmed of fat. The original stories are far less than that. Not only is the reader forced to wade through what feels like undisciplined blather, but the emotional force is blunted and dulled through Carver’s penchant for telling, for spelling things out that Lish had mercifully expurgated from the original publication. Carver’s Collected Stories are a lesson in the difficulties of making a strong, introspective interior voice work in the short story format and my having recently read them may have heightened my attention to this kind of writing, but upon closing What Becomes one really feels that Kennedy’s resounding success at it is more than commendable, it’s wondrous. Kennedy never sacrifices emotional impact for elaborate speechifying, she makes the voices work for her, wrenches melodies, surprises and modulations from them, grabbing its readers by the throat.

And at the same time, she is often very, very funny. There is no need for her to paint a bleak picture in doom and gloom. Her stories are filled to the brim with the fullness of life, whether it’s a discussion of orgasm, or a humorous narrative of being afraid of the dentist, whether it’s remembering Doctor Who in a flotation tank or trading books with a blond beauty. People in her stories don’t give up on life, although most just hang on, but at least they do that. I called What Becomes an ars vitae, and then went on to enumerate stories where none of the characters really show us how to live life well, which might seem contradictory, but then Kennedy is not a philosopher, she does not intend to provide us with lessons or teachable moments. Instead, her stories are powered by her characters’ own drive to live their life well and Kennedy shows herself to be both a deeply moral writer, touching on various political and philosophical issues, as well as a compassionate, beautifully open and accepting writer, who waits for her characters to come up with a solution of how to live their lives, how to deal with others and one’s own ugly self. The most sublimely moving moments are those where here characters have the will and the vision to re-design the future, if not for themselves, then for their children, to make sure they will not be as damaged, as warped as they themselves. Despite Kennedy’s reputation for being unremittingly bleak and despite, too, the darkness in these stories, none of them are without hope, without the tacit potential of a better, a brighter future. All this is presented in Kennedy’s inimitable style, in her unique lines that have both the brevity of punchlines, and the sinuous flow of human thoughts and feelings.

I know some people don’t take to Kennedy, incomprehensible as it is to me, yet I’d go so far as to recommend this book to everyone who likes to read short stories. Maybe Kennedy takes some getting used to, maybe her stark sense of the body and of the world of the corporeal and of objects, and the long ruminations of her characters are not for everybody, but A. L. Kennedy is easily one of the best writers of her generation, and What Becomes might just be the best introduction to her work one could wish for.

You are an I, you are an Elizabeth, you are one of them.

Elizabeth Bishop: In the Waiting Room

In Worcester, Massachusetts,
I went with Aunt Consuelo
to keep her dentist’s appointment
and sat and waited for her
in the dentist’s waiting room.
It was winter. It got dark
early. The waiting room
was full of grown-up people,
arctics and overcoats,
lamps and magazines.
My aunt was inside
what seemed like a long time
and while I waited I read
the National Geographic
(I could read) and carefully
studied the photographs:
the inside of a volcano,
black, and full of ashes;
then it was spilling over
in rivulets of fire.
Osa and Martin Johnson
dressed in riding breeches,
laced boots, and pith helmets.
A dead man slung on a pole
–“Long Pig,” the caption said.
Babies with pointed heads
wound round and round with string;
black, naked women with necks
wound round and round with wire
like the necks of light bulbs.
Their breasts were horrifying.
I read it right straight through.
I was too shy to stop.
And then I looked at the cover:
the yellow margins, the date.
Suddenly, from inside,
came an oh! of pain
–Aunt Consuelo’s voice–
not very loud or long.
I wasn’t at all surprised;
even then I knew she was
a foolish, timid woman.
I might have been embarrassed,
but wasn’t. What took me
completely by surprise
was that it was me:
my voice, in my mouth.
Without thinking at all
I was my foolish aunt,
I–we–were falling, falling,
our eyes glued to the cover
of the National Geographic,
February, 1918.

I said to myself: three days
and you’ll be seven years old.
I was saying it to stop
the sensation of falling off
the round, turning world.
into cold, blue-black space.
But I felt: you are an I,
you are an Elizabeth,
you are one of them.
Why should you be one, too?
I scarcely dared to look
to see what it was I was.
I gave a sidelong glance
–I couldn’t look any higher–
at shadowy gray knees,
trousers and skirts and boots
and different pairs of hands
lying under the lamps.
I knew that nothing stranger
had ever happened, that nothing
stranger could ever happen.

Why should I be my aunt,
or me, or anyone?
What similarities–
boots, hands, the family voice
I felt in my throat, or even
the National Geographic
and those awful hanging breasts–
held us all together
or made us all just one?
How–I didn’t know any
word for it–how “unlikely”. . .
How had I come to be here,
like them, and overhear
a cry of pain that could have
got loud and worse but hadn’t?

The waiting room was bright
and too hot. It was sliding
beneath a big black wave,
another, and another.

Then I was back in it.
The War was on. Outside,
in Worcester, Massachusetts,
were night and slush and cold,
and it was still the fifth
of February, 1918.

I love this poem. Who doesn’t? It’s one of Bishop’s best known poems and rightly so.

But Boxing Is Only Like Boxing

No one whose interest in boxing began as mine did in childhood – as an offshoot of my father’s interest – is likely to think of boxing as a symbol for something beyond itself, as if its uniqueness were merely an abbreviation, or iconographic; though I can entertain the idea that life is a metaphor for boxing – for one of those bouts that go on and on, round following round, jabs, missed punches, clinches, nothing determined, again the bell and again and you and your opponent is you: and why this struggle on an elevated platform enclosed by ropes as a pen beneath hot crude pitiless lights in the presence of an impatient crowd? – that sort of hellish-writerly metaphor. Life is like boxing in many unsettling respects. But boxing is only like boxing.

this is from Joyce Carol Oates’ masterful book On Boxing, which I often recommend to detractors of Oates’ vast work.

David Anthony Durham: Acacia

Durham, David Anthony (2008), Acacia: The War with the Mein, Anchor
ISBN 978-0-385-72252-0

David Anthony Durham is one of a flood of new fantasy novelists, one of those who, like Brandon Sanderson, Patrick Rothfuss or Scott Lynch, has been able to command a great deal of attention. Praise for Durham and his fellow fantasy rookies often revolves around the changes they made to the familiar fantasy formula. It is indicative of the low expectations in the genre that a divergence from a tired old formula is not what is expected of all decent writing, but is seen as a hallmark of excellence. This does not, of course, diminish the quality of Rothfuss’ or Sanderson’s books (cf. my review of Rothfuss’ book here, and of a Sanderson novel here),where the departure from fantasy stereotype is a sign of larger visions and ideas than lesser writers like Jordan can boast of, as well as of a more complete understanding of what use the underpinnings of the fantasy genre really are. Changing the formula, in their case, is part and parcel of a more intelligent or more aware kind of writing. In this context, Durham is an odd writer. On the one hand, in Acacia: The War with the Mein, the first installment of the Acacia trilogy, Durham conjures up a ravishing world, one that is very different from the usual fantasy worlds in many ways and that displays the awareness of a writer who has, so far, primarily written historical novels dealing with North Africa. Fantasy novelists’ worlds are too often infused with one of two sets of imagery: either a middle European medieval scenario, or, often used by way of contrast, a world based on a vaguely East Asian image. In my reading experience, the varieties of African cultures have been severely underrepresented. Durham’s world is convincing in the way that it offers a multitude of non-European images and cultures, without losing the feudal, medieval charm of mainstream fantasy.

In fact, this is what makes this book such a curious experience. The setting, and the thoroughness of his use of setting (including discussions of skin color, race, and non-European concepts of magic) clashes with the gentle acceptance of almost every other aspect. This book is as harshly androcentric and vaguely misogynistic as Jordan’s multi-volume epic of tediousness is, and Durham’s take on feudalism and courtly intrigue, as well as his take on warfare and the individuals in it, are similarly unreflected and simplistic. Durham’s heroes are of royal blood, and he treats them like Gods, in the sense that the welfare of the people of his populous country is entirely up to them and their moods and their virtues or flaws. A general’s mistake leads to millions killed, a king’s cowardliness leads to their enslavement. The contrast to even as generic a book as Sanderson’s Mistborn trilogy is stunning. Sanderson combines popular uprisings with courtly intrigue, he roots his magic in the earth of his world, connecting nobles and the poor through magic as a common element. Durham’s magic is written magic, the magic of the word, and by hiding a book away one can restrict access to magic and eventually remove magic from the world. The world of Acacia: The War with the Mein is extremely hierarchical, and there’s no signs of change and no real criticism of that fact (what’s debated are merely different varieties of feudalistic hierarchies). Instead, he endows two royal families with attributes (bravery, jealousy, faith etc.) that will determine the fate of the people of Acacia. There is something extremely unpleasant about this, an unpleasantness that is exacerbated by the fact that hierarchies include those of gender. Not in the sense that the society is misogynistic, as the broadly medieval setting would well explain this.

No, in creating his protagonists, Durham has recourse to archaic stereotypes, which makes for extremely accessible reading. There is the brave, bold and innocent hero, there is the scheming, mean anti-hero, and so forth. Needless to say, the brave warriors are all men, except for one woman, whom we are introduced to as a kind of Joan of Arc, a warrior-priestess, a permissible mode. The scheming, sneaky good guy-turned-bad is a woman, of course, who, as the book proceeds, turns from whore to assassin and scheming queen. Additionally, Durham cannot muster enough interest in his world to explore it to any degree of thoroughness. All descriptions, all the elements feel superficial, random, cursory. The plot as well, based as it is on various heroic and gender stereotypes, seems to run on automatisms. The changes that George R.R. Martin brought to the table, the way that Martin’s heroes die left and right, and not in glorious duels, but in ignominious arrow hails, the way Martin thought about the inner workings of feudalism, his deep commitment to heraldry and other geeky subsets of writing about a medieval world, none of that appears to have brushed Durham’s mind when he conceived his books. Durham writes in a way that is easy on the mind and heart, a fantasy that is comfortable because there are no surprises, nothing to jolt or excite the mind. Reading Durham is fun, but only for fantasy loyalists. I happen to have a sweet tooth for this brand of writing, and if you have similar predilections, you will have a great deal of fun. Durham’s world is sumptuous, his story is epic, and filled with magic and mystery. If you want more from your fantasy (or literature in general), you should give Durham a pass. Unlike Rothfuss, Martin, or even Sanderson, this is not for outsiders. This is fantasy for fantasy/romance fans. As such, it works well, and I highly recommend it for these purposes. It is an engaging, escapist read of war, intrigue and love in a warm climate.

What it’s not, is well written. Granted, great writing is rare in fantasy, even good writers like Rothfuss are not stellar stylists. But for whatever reason, Durham under-performs, even given the poor expectations of the genre he chose. The main problem is that he decided to at least partially imitate a high, elegant, epic register in his writing. Especially the first third of the book, while the reader is trying to get used to the language, Durham’s poor imitation of Renaissance English grates. Inversions, awkward rhythms and courtly circuitousness are but a few of the stylistic jinks employed by Durham to make the language of his book sound as epic as the story it helps tell. It’s hard to tell whether this annoying attribute is due to his past writing of historical novels, or whether it is an attempt to achieve what Martin and Tolkien did with their use of language. It’s likely he didn’t read Martin or didn’t read him well, because I always admired the way Martin constructed a sturdy yet old-sounding language that contained just the right amount of anachronisms to fit the setting; yet his language was always simple and strong enough not to seem more literary than it needed to. What Martin recognized, and Durham should have done, as well, is that Tolkien’s example is a tough act to follow. The readability of Tolkien’s work and the immediacy of his story hide the literary complexity of his writing. Like him or not, Tolkien was no mean writer and fantasy novelists who want to copy the effect without having the literary acumen to back it up, are bound to fail. And if, as in Durham’s novel, the result is primarily annoying and distracting, it’s arguably worse than if the writing were just simply bad and pulpy (insert random Lovecraft comment here).

However, the mediocre writing is symptomatic of a larger malaise in Durham’s book. Durham is a stylist, not in the sense of a writer with a good or remarkable style, but in the sense that he is heavily invested in style, not just (or even primarily) literary style. The interiors and landscapes of the book are polished, gleaming, well, stylish. One feels, as a reader, that this, his first experiment at constructing a world, has led him astray. I would not be surprised to learn that he had watercolors of the landscapes and cities made to flesh out his vision. Acacia is not an actual country and nothing in the way that the book is told suggests to us that it might be one, there is no sense that this may be a conflicting, opposing or in any way relevant reality. Durham has created his world as an object, as a location wherein to put elegant furniture and epic heroes. There is a chapter where he appears to try and slip out of this view of the world, by introducing a drug-addled ex-soldier, getting by on the streets of a country ravaged by war and a devastating plague, yet that chapter sticks out like a sore thumb (and it doesn’t work). It’s a testament to Durham’s qualities as a storyteller that the book as a whole nevertheless does work as a piece of escapist literature. But the distanced, artificial world Durham builds has severe consequences for other aspects of his novel. Durham is a smarter writer than the book shows him to be, and we as readers can see how he, time and again, attempts to inject interesting ideas into his story, social concerns, even allusions to contemporary politics, but the clean, non-stick surface of the book precludes any success in this endeavor. One hopes that the second and third volume blow the world of the book open enough for the ideas to take some hold in the flesh of the world and the book, instead of staying surface phenomena.

The story itself focuses on an invasion of the barbarians. Yes, that is a very common motif, but while other writers tease their readers with the imminent threat and start with skirmishes, Durham wastes no time in confronting the ruling people of the Known World, the Acacians, with the brutal invaders from the north, the Mein. Hanish Mein, the leader of the barbarians, soon proves himself to be a crafty and courageous enemy, smashing the Acacian army to bits and taking over the Known World. Durham is not interested in the things that happen to ordinary people and the minutiae of warfare is also of lesser interest to him. Instead he focuses on a few climactic events and then just briefly summarizes what happened. People die, the bad guys win, end of story. But while he is not interested in ordinary people, he lionizes epic heroic characters and who could be more heroic than a king and his brood. In fact, the whole book is narrated with a focus on the four children of the Acacian king. The king, killed in the brief war (dare I say Blitzkrieg?), has left instructions to send his four children, two girls and two boys, to the four corners of the Known World, to provide them with save havens and the opportunity to learn something about the land that their family has ruled for such a long time. That “Known World” is basically one long continent which contains all manner of vegetation and all kinds of peoples. A few scattered islands near the coast complete the Known World. It is contrasted by the Other Lands, an unknown country or continent beyond the sea. The king and his dynasty has been involved in shadowy dealings with the Other Land for generations, although they never dealt with them directly. Instead, they chose to trust the League, a group of merchants who watch over the commerce between the two continents. That much is not shadowy, but the goods that are dealt in are.

The Acacians buy a drug called “Mist” from the Other Land, and in return they pay with children. I’m not kidding. This is a country that knows not only enforced child labor in mines, but that also pays with children to acquire drugs. Drugs, moreover, that are not used to pleasure the decadent ruling class, but to keep the populace quiet and peaceful. Mist is literally an opiate for the people. The Acacian rule does not need religion, in fact, one of the most important kings of the dynasty, a consummate magician, has banned all magic from the kingdom, leaving him the only powerful magician in the realm. Subsequently, all knowledge of magic and the associated religion, was purged from the world. The fact that this family, who traffic in children, drug their populace and crack down on unwanted knowledge, that these are the good guys of the story, that was a brilliant idea, and one that deserved a better payoff. The bad guys, the barbarians from the North, were sent there by the same evil magician/king who purged his world from magic. Given the historical cruelty inflicted upon them, their return could seem morally justified, but in Durham’s book, they stay bad guys all the way through. And this is the problem. Durham had a brilliant idea but his decision to keep things simple and palatable, he is unable to divest himself of simple oppositions, and so he compartmentalizes, by killing every member of the dynasty except the children before the book begins, allowing him to use them as positive, innocent heroes, with royal (read: heroic) blood, but no evil past. The good children, the scheming woman, and the bad (but not really evil) barbarians, this reminded me a lot of the Song of the Nibelungs. Especially towards the end of Acacia: The War with the Mein, as power shifts, the book carried strong associations to the classic text.

But this association also makes one of his strengths visible. Because the landscape and the cultures of his book are so original, and diverge so much from the usual fantasy fare, his barbarians are fascinating creatures. Many fantasy books feature attacks from the north, but Durham is adamant that races exist, if they do, because people migrate somewhere, races evolve, and they can adapt. The Otherness, encoded in the Song of the Nibelungs through the Huns, is displaced here, and relocated. The Barbarians are not Other, they are victims, and fundamentally similar to the Acacians. However, the unknown and unseen population of the Other Lands is quite literally ‘other’. However rough he treats other details, he is very careful with that place. Even calling one continent “Known World” is enough to make any reader think of European explorations other countries and the imperialism it led to. The regime of Acacia is already far more evil than any monarchy in Europe was when explorers uncovered the unknown, and subjugated peoples on all continents. Yet in Durham’s world, we are led to believe that the Others are more rich, more powerful and far more dangerous than Acacians can imagine. Since Acacian culture appears to be a version of various African cultures, this turns the table on obvious assumptions as who ‘we’ are and who ‘the Others’. Most contemporary fantasy works with invaders who seem stronger, but aren’t really, who are mostly strange. With these books he shares a tendency to portray the Others as vaguely menacing, but the cultural parameters are different. This is part of what makes reading the book such fun.

I repeat: this was a very enjoyable reading experience. It has obvious flaws that might make reading the book for people who are not either fans of epic fantasy or fans of romance a less joyful event. But for me, the 750-something pages just flew by. Durham is a marvelous storyteller, not a smart or thorough one, but still an excellent craftsman. The suspense is built perfectly, as we move from one event to the next, his heroes are positioned perfectly. I said he relies heavily on typical elements. that’s true, but on the other hand, he has utterly mastered them. Acacia: The War with the Mein is not a good book, but I had so much fun reading it, that I cannot but recommend it.

RIP Edwin Morgan

You may or may not have heard, but sadly, Edwin Morgan has died.

Edwin Morgan, who has died aged 90, was the last of a group of great Scottish poets, spanning two generations, sometimes referred to as “the seven poets”. Morgan was unrivalled in his formal invention, linguistic resourcefulness and – not the least of his qualities – his sense of fun.

I’ve posted a poem by Morgan elsewhere on this blog and will repeat my reverence for his work and my recommendation of the brick-sized Collected Poems as published by Carcanet. It is sad, but not unexpected news.


New Poem

(in German, for once. you might also see why I never write German poems any more.)


es liegt zuviel asche in der luft. die felder
sind verheert, und die schoesse der männer.

erbrochen sind die schreine, im schatten der
knisternden balken. rühr deinen sud an,

füll dir die taschen mit steinen und teer. wir
scharren zwischen den klirrenden flaschen

zahnenden alkohols.

That garrulous presence we sometimes call the self

Richard Howard is rightly acclaimed as a major American poet, yet he is among those titans of contemporary writing whose name or work is unknown even to passionate purveyors of poetry. He never quite achieved the prominence of poets like Merrill, Bidart or Merwin. I took the poem below from his book Inner Voices: Selected Poems, 1963-2003, published in 2004, which I strongly recommend to everyone interested in good poetry. At a first glance, Howard can seem less original than Merrill or Bidart, but his poetry sings with a very unique voice and his obsession with art and artists and his vision of them is compelling. Like Merrill, Howard has an excellent command of form and his language is fluid and supple yet always acute and alive. Reading Howard is an inspiring, uplifting experience like no other. Too much? No. He’s really that good. Inner Voices is almost shockingly great. Buy it. Read it.

Richard Howard: At Sixty-five

The tragedy, Colette said, is that one
does not age. Everyone else does, of course
(as Marcel was so shocked to discover),
and upon one’s mask odd disfigurements
are imposed; but that garrulous presence
we sometimes call the self, sometimes deny

it exists at all despite its carping
monologue, is the same as when we stole
the pears, spied on mother in the bath, ran
away from home. What has altered is what
Kant called Categories: the shape of time
changes altogether! Days, weeks, months,

And especially years are reassigned.
Famous for her timing, a Broadway wit
told me her “method“: asked to do something,
anything, she would acquiesce next year –
“I’ll commit suicide, provided it’s
next year”. But after sixty-five, next year

is now. Hours? There are none, only a few
reckless postponements before it is time…
When was it you “last” saw Jimmy? – last spring?
Last winter? That scribbled arbiter
your calendar reveals betrays the date:
over a year ago. Come again? No

time like the present, endlessly deferred.
Which makes a difference: once upon a time
there was only time (…as the day is long)
between the wanting self and what it wants.
Wanting still, you have no dimension where
fulfillment or frustration can occur.

Of course you have, but you must cease waiting
upon it: simply turn around and look
back. Like Orpheus, like Mrs. Lot, you
will be petrified -astonished- to learn
memory is endless, life very long,
and you – you are immortal after all.

the hot slow head of suicide

Laura Riding Jackson: Death as Death

To conceive death as death
Is difficulty come by easily,
A blankness fallen among
Images of understanding,
Death like a quick cold hand
On the hot slow head of suicide.
So is it come by easily
For one instant. Then again furnaces
Roar in the ears, then again hell revolves,
And the elastic eye holds paradise
At visible length from blindness,
And dazedly the body echoes
“Like this, like this, like nothing else.”

Like nothing – a similarity
Without resemblance. The prophetic eye,
Closing upon difficulty,
Opens upon comparison,
Halving the actuality
As a gift too plain, for which
Gratitude has no language,
Foresight no vision.

This is taken from the momentuous The Laura (Riding) Jackson Reader, edited by Elizabeth Friedmann.

We / Die soon.

Gwendolyn Brooks: We Real Cool

We real cool. We
Left school. We

Lurk late. We
Strike straight. We

Sing sin. We
Thin gin. We

Jazz June. We
Die soon.

a contenporary classic. This is probably Gwendolyn Brooks’ most well known poem. Brooks herself is one of last century’s best American poets. Read her Selected Poems, please.

Master, mammoth mumbler

Robert Lowell: Ford Madox Ford

The lobbed ball plops, then dribbles to the cup….
(a birdie Fordie!) But it nearly killed
the ministers. Lloyd George was holding up
the flag. He gabbled, “Hop-toad. hop-toad, hop-toad!
Hueffer has used a niblick on the green;
it’s filthy art, Sir, filthy art!”
You answered, “What is art to me and thee?
Will a blacksmith teach a midwife how to bear?”
That cut the puffing statesman down to size,
Ford. You said, “Otherwise,
I would have been general of a division.” Ah Ford!
Was it warm the sport of kings, that your Good Soldier,
the best French novel in the language, taught
those Georgian Whig magnificoes at Oxford,
at Oxford decimated on the Somme?
Ford, five times black-balled for promotion,
then mustard gassed voiceless some seven miles
behind the lines at Nancy or Belleau Wood:
you emerged in your “worn uniform,
gilt dragons on the revers of the tunic,”
a Jonah – O divorced, divorced
from the whale-fat of post-war London! Boomed,
cut, plucked and booted! In Providence, New York …
marrying, blowing…nearly dying
at Boulder, when the altitude
pressed the world on your heart,
and your audience, almost football-size,
shrank to a dozen, while you stood
mumbling, with fish-blue-eyes,
and mouth pushed out
fish-fashion, as if you gagged for air….
Sandman! Your face, a childish O. The sun
is pernod-yellow and it gilds the heirs
of all the ages there on Washington
and Stuyvesant, your Lilliputian squares,
where writing turned your pockets inside out.
But master, mammoth mumbler, tell me why
the bales of your left-over novels buy
less than a bandage for your gouty foot.
Wheel-horse, O unforgetting elephant,
I hear you huffing at your old Brevoort,
Timon and Falstaff, while you heap the board
for publishers. Fiction! I’m selling short
your lies that made the great your equals. Ford,
you were a kind man and you died in want.

One of several poems Lowell wrote for his friend, the great novelist Ford Madox Ford. This staggering one was published in Life Studies, and recently reprinted

Joe Kelly and JM Ken Niimura: I Kill Giants

Kelly, Joe; JM Ken Niimura (2010), I Kill Giants, Image Comics
ISBN 978-1-60706-092-5

Yes, it’s a cop-out to assail those who don’t like a book you love with claims that they didn’t really open up to it, didn’t really engage with it, yadda yadda. Yes, it’s true to say that it’s probably not really a good book, if it only works for the very emotionally open reader. But, preemptively, that’s exactly the argument that brewed in my head when I finished I Kill Giants and thought about a review. It’s a simple fact: you are not allowed not to love this book. There is much in the book that is excellent, especially the artwork which is just stunning. The writing is, except for exactly two panels near the end of the book, always at least solid, more often great than not. But as a whole, I feel it needs the reader to respond to the way it tugs at his or her emotions in order to cohere and deliver a finishing wallop. This is an amazing book, yet as I finished it, I feared that not everyone might think so (although no-one in their right mind would call it a bad book per se). This is something that is true of a lot of fantastical, young adult or romantic literature: unless you accept their terms and read them with an appropriate openness, they won’t work. But even if you happen to not love this book as much as I did (and everybody should), you cannot fail to recognize all the excellent qualities of the book. I Kill Giants is a graphic novel, published as a limited miniseries with seven issues from July 2008 until January 2009. A collection of all issues was then published by Image Comics in 2009, which runs to 184 pages and is a gorgeously designed object. The writer is seasoned comics veteran Joe Kelly who has written all kinds of stuff, from mainstream Marvel issues (Spiderman, JLA and others) to I Kill Giants and the similarly original and odd Four Eyes. The artist is the extraordinary JM Ken Niimura, who’s relatively new to the industry. This, in fact, is his first published full graphic novel, I gather from an appended interview. The result of their cooperation is a magnificent, marvelous book that I cannot praise highly enough and that you are not allowed to dislike.

Graphic novels are always the result of both a writer’s and an artist’s input and a change of artist can mean a change in style. Writers can control the look and feel of a graphic novel only to an extent, and when they do dominate the artist, as Brian Wood does in his DMZ series of books (see my review), the result is often weak. And a writers’s efforts, as Millar’s in the early Ultimate X-Men issues, can be weakened by an artist who’s a bad fit or second-rate. On the other hand, a great artist can save even sagging, sentimental writing by transforming it into a great, affecting visual narrative. This is, in part, what happened with I Kill Giants. Joe Kelly is not a bad writer, and much here, especially the dialogue, works very well, but the novel’s concept isn’t, to be honest, terribly original and Kelly grapples with the difficulties arising from trying to keep artless sentimentality as far as way from the book as possible. This book, without giving too much away, deals with a kind of grief, one could say. In the appended interview, Kelly tells us that he experienced a somewhat similar situation himself, and it shows. Roughly two thirds of the book are intent on finding and exploring an apt metaphor for the protagonist’s emotional duress, but the closer we get to the end, the more loose Kelly’s reins are on the explicitness of the emotions his books discusses. This culminates in two positively cheesy panels full of well-meaning, daft, life-affirming advice. Niimura doesn’t complement Kelly here, he saves him from his worst instincts. All that said, I have to repeat and affirm that I was very moved by the book. Joe Kelly undertakes a balancing act here, as far as his writing is concerned, and throughout most of I Kill Giants, he pulls it off. The protagonist’s journey away from fear and into the light of day, friendship and family is always convincing, and, at certain points, truly powerful. Stories like this have been told before, but it’s Kelly’s achievement that we care enough for this specific pointy-eared protagonist in order to read this story nor as one of many but as a special story, the moving story of Barbara Thorson.

Indeed, Kelly’s skill at evoking his protagonist Barbara Thorson, bringing her to life before our eyes, is the most praiseworthy aspect of his writing, and the only place where he is not dependent on Niimura’s art to make it all work well. Kelly assembles a broad array of scenes, dialogue and juxtapositions that help us to see Barbara not merely as an oddity, but as a very specific, flesh-and-blood person, a girl that life has dealt a harsh hand and that decides to batter away at the dark force that invaded her home and her heart. As we meet her, she sits, hidden behind a bed-sheet, on which she has drawn violent mythical fight scenes, planning her imminent fight against the giants. Because Barbara Thorson, as we learn a few pages later, is a giant-killer, carrying a hammer with her in a pouch, reading books on giants and conversing with invisible angels. Always ready to pounce and defend the world against giants or, even worse, the fearsome titan. Barbara is a natural storyteller. She has no difficulties inventing giant-killer stories and planning the upcoming fight against oversize opponents, in part because even before she was entrusted with this mission, Barbara was a storyteller of heroic battles: Kelly’s heroine is a Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) Dungeon Master. D&D is a fantasy role-playing game that requires a high degree of imagination. A group of friends sits around the table, each of them an actor in a story that is completely concocted by the dungeon master. They act and react, but the environment, the monsters, quests and rewards are invented by the Dungeon Master. D&D has a thick rule book, but it’s the Dungeon Master’s reading of these rules that ultimately counts. He or she is the highest authority as to the specifics of the story, the world and the mechanics of fighting and living in that world. One very telling episode has Sophia, friend of Barbara, look for her in a comic book shop, where Sophia learns that Barbara commands a deep respect among fellow fantasy devotees. These skills, this kind of commitment to narrative and imagination is then transferred into real life and Barbara’s fight against giants. But Kelly is smart enough not to disparage and minimize her mission by treating it as pure invention.

Instead, he projects her obsession onto the real world, like a second, diaphanous layer. In this, Niimura’s art is more than a great help. Niimura’s vision of Barbara’s world, both the one she seems to inhabit alone and the one she shares with others, is stunning in its poetic power. The art does several things. There are, on the one hand, transparent objects, small little winged critters, like chubby little fairies, which appear to be scrawled onto the real world. They are related, the reader soon realizes, to the millions of sketches and drawings that Barbara has undertaken, not just on the bed-sheet of the first panel, but later, as well. The giants that Barbara sets out to kill do not make an actual appearance for most of the book, there’s no need for Barbara to invent or imagine them. For us they only exist as actual drawings, the accuracy of which is hard to judge. So in Niimura’s depiction of Barbara’s worlds, drawings as inventions and imaginary (or not so imaginary) beings and forces coexist uneasily, and each often intrudes on the other’s turf. As part of a graphic novel’s discussion of art and the imagination, Niimura offers a powerful plea for the strength of imagination to infuse our daily lives with, well, life, due to changes in perception. Barbara’s imagination is her own, the drawings and sketches are her own. She doesn’t trade cards or paint figurines, she draws from scratch, and the insights into herself or life that she gains are her own, strong convictions, scooped from her own plentiful source. Very early in the book, she stands up, derisively, to a motivational coach, because she doesn’t need his narrow, dull, restricted grandstanding. This is not to deny that she has problems that she needs to deal with, but listening, waiting, encouraging turns out to be the best way to help her. Barbara doesn’t need an educational fiat, a psychological, medical or pedagogical sanction of her way of dealing with things. Both Kelly and Niimura stress this aspect, but it’s really Niimura’s art that impresses it most on the reader who might skip some of Kelly’s overwrought language, his hokey, ‘meaningful’ dialogue near the end. A lot of panels, or even whole pages, would have worked better with no words at all. Almost the whole last fourth could have been easily shorn of dialogue and would have been much improved upon.

There is one last aspect of Niimura’s art that is worth mentioning. I talked about how he mixes drawings and a perception of the world. But he also mixes imagination and reality. In the interview in the back, he tells us that in working out a version of Barbara Thorson that he liked, he suddenly started adding hats and large rabbit ears. Kelly kept his manuscript as it was, despite the added ears, so that the dialogue or story never reflects Barbara’s odd hare-y ears, which has the effect of adding a constant level of surrealism to the book. There is no clear division between what’s real and tangible and what’s imagined. There are rationalizations, and explanations aplenty, especially for the more outrageous phenomena, but I think (and some people I know disagree) that the book never really takes sides. Motifs and explanations are fragmented and scattered all over the book, as rivaling mythologies, such as the many different evocations of meteorology. In fact, some scenes appear to make this point almost explicit: it is not about some vaguely objective facts of nature, but about how you read them, within which cultural and personal context you situate certain phenomena, what you are prepared to accept as explanation and what you are not. Niimura works heavily with visual hints and clues and it’s been awhile since I read a graphic novel that used the resources of its genre this exhaustively, that made it so clear that this is not a deviation from ‘regular novels’, that a story like this needs the images Niimura provides, that it is completely dependent on its visual aspect, and what’s more, Niimura’s highly successful in doing so. But not to downplay Kelly’s work. He does his part in adding layers of dream and imagination, for example in casting the whole story in a mythical light. You see, Kelly manages to both present the events of I Kill Giants as an episode in Barbara’s life, as well as a kind of destiny, a mission that her life is formed around. Even her name, designing her a son of Norse God of Thunder, Thor, is connected to that mission (and to the weather/myth ambiguity near the end)

In fact, Kelly assembles a whole subset of items and references that connect Barbara’s story to Norse mythology. Thor fought giants, as well, and he did it with his trusty hammer Mjöllnir, which was, like Barbara’s weapon, of variable size. I suspect that some of the intrigue, traps and upheavals in Barbara’s story have a parallel of sorts in one of the various versions of Thor’s story. This is all very plain but effective, as is another parallel established by Kelly: the American myths, like Baseball history. Barbara’s hammer is named after Harry Coveleski, a Major League Baseball pitcher who, during his time on the Phillies, earned himself the nickname of “The Giant Killer”. The mythical qualities of the American obsession with Baseball have been pointed out quite a few times, most recently perhaps by Michael Chabon in his book Summerland. Baseball, Thor and Barbara’s art and appearance are all mixed in this heady, emotionally powerful book, which shows us a person, enmeshed in cultural, mythical and social contexts who draws on her imagination, on her art to cope with personal problems. This is a very strong recommendation. You may not be as moved as I was, but you can’t miss the craft of Niimura’s art and the overall strength of the writing. Niimura’s work here stunned me, and it will stun you, however you react to Joe Kelly’s sadly uneven writing. This is a very, very good book, made by two masters of their trade. Given the fact that Niimura’s career has only just begun, this book is also a promise of great things to come. In my opinion, I Kill Giants is a masterpiece, but even if you disagree, you’ll still be admiring a lot of it.

“Mr. Pilgrim!”

As you know (see my review here), I loved/love Bryan Lee O’Malley’s magnificent creation called Scott Pilgrim.

Well, it’s been made into a movie. Although Michael Cera is horribly miscast in the title role, the whole product does look interesting. The more often I watch the trailer the more it appears to be a tragedy that the movie won’t hit German movie theaters before next year. Curses!