If At Faust You Don’t Succeed : Scott McCloud – “The Sculptor”

“There’s this new dream where I’m walking from one end of Manhattan to the other, and somehow I know, I just know, that everyone I pass on the street is a would be artist like me. Businessmen, bartenders, cab drivers – doesn’t matter. Everyone is secretly a dancer, an actor, a writer, a painter. A million of us with the same dream: to create, to connect, to be remembered. But it’s winter; the sidewalks are slippery, covered in ice… and the city begins TILTING. And we’re sliding, all of us. Sliding down this horrible giant ramp into nothing. Into the void… Like… Like…”

“So help me God, if you say ‘like the conveyor belt scene in Toy Story 3′, I’ll-“

“It… It was on Starz.”

“Dammit, I TOLD you not to watch that!”

Those little touches of well-observed humor do their best to deflate the ponderous sentimentality in  Scott McCloud’s “The Sculptor,” a Faustian tale of a floundering artist who exchanges his life – and perhaps his soul- for his art. But “The Sculptor” won’t replace Goethe’s “Faust,” or Christopher Marlowe’s Faust, for that matter: it is much closer to Nicholas Sparks’ “Faust.”

ABOVE: “Best in Years”? Has Neil been avoiding the graphic novel field?

David Smith is a has-been-who-briefly-was and is now resigned to being in the shadow of the OTHER David Smith, (the famous real life sculptor.) When he meets Death-or-the-Devil-or-whomever in the form of his late Uncle Harry, he gets offered a deal: he’ll be able to easily mold and sculpt any material with his own superpowered hands, unleashing the totality of his talent… but he only has 200 days to leave his mark in the art world. Then, he’ll die.

ABOVE: The other David Smith went everywhere cheerfully spreading the joy of art.

David sets out to work feverishly on his transformative masterpieces – and here McCloud makes his first tactical mistake: we get to see them… and the sculptures are far from impressive. When the art  world rejects David’s creations, we’re supposed to shudder at the unappreciative callousness of those unable to recognize true genius. But honestly his stuff looks derivative at best, tacky at worst. (Rule: when your story is about a great artist/writer/painter/musician/director, please don’t show us the mind-blowing end products unless you’re convinced you can deliver.)

ABOVE: All those sculptures look horrible.

McCloud’s toothless depiction of the art world barely counts as satire. “Art School Confidential” this isn’t. And David is a cliche of the artist as the young man: if we relate to his artistic and existential dilemmas it’s less a result of good character-building than of his generic, insert-yourself-in-the-blanks persona. His most “original” trait is an unpleasant unwillingness to compromise on arbitrary moral stances. But he is nothing compared to Meg, the manic pixie dream girl who descends the heavens for David’s sexual salvation. (Ok, she doesn’t LITERALLY descend from the Heavens – it just looks like she does. However, she IS literally manic!)

ABOVE: “Send me an angel, send me angel right now.”

But even if we’re tempted to dismiss David and Meg and the rest of the cast for the way they fit so easily into their little ‘stereotype’ boxes (or panels?), the fact is that McCloud has thought deeply about his characters, and he has affection for them. Perhaps too much: affection can easily turn cloying, and boy, does McCloud work hard at tugging heart strings and plucking tears!

So here I am, feeling teary-eyed but underwhelmed. I had hoped this would be a truly ground-breaking work, coming as it does from easily the most famous of graphic novel theorists. So I can’t quite sympathize with Neil Gaiman’s “best in years” cover blurb. This could have been more. I revere McCloud’s “Understanding Comics” as the first work that gave me highfalutin academic tools to defend graphic novels from their detractors, (and I even liked “Zot” as the immature, inventive sketch it is.) But “The Sculptor” is not quite the grand successful summation of McCloud’s ideas it should have been: it is far more impressive as a debut novel, hinting at further maturation. Too bad the man is in his late 50s.

ABOVE: The Sculptor


The Real Red Wedding 2 : Christopher Marlowe – “The Massacre at Paris”

ABOVE: Paris is Well Worth a Massacre

Christopher Marlowe: Spy. The idea that Shakespeare’s nearest Elizabethan competitor had an action-packed life in the political stage is too fun to dismiss, slight as the evidence of Marlowe’s adventures are. Sometimes the theorists cling to such minor details as the fact that Marlowe inserts an “English Agent”/ spy / self-portrait at the end of “The Massacre at Paris.” Marlowe’s less-beloved play is a minor burst of chaotic violence, dealing with the same bloody  events as Alexandre Dumas’  “Queen Margot” and extending to the latter part of the Wars of Religion (up to the assassination of the Duke de Guise by Henri III, an act which dismayed Catherine de Medicis.) The play was far more influential politically than aesthetically: it was used in England as anti-Catholic-refugee propaganda during the 1590s. The fact that Marlowe was uncharacteristically dealing with recent, still controversial history is of interest to scholars, but try as I might, I cannot see here the poetic power or theatrical inventiveness of the author of “Dido, Queen of Carthage” and “Doctor Faustus”… Although the character of De Guise does ocassionally show something of the dare-devil, fate-tempting nature that Marlowe favored in characters. Not only is De Guise Faustian, he’s downright Miltonian:

What glory is there in a common good,

That hangs for every peasant to achieve?

That like I best that flies beyond my reach.

Set me to scale the high Pyramides,

And thereon set the Diadem of France,

I’ll either rend it with my nails to naught,

Or mount the top with my aspiring wings,

Although my downfall be the deepest hell.

But for the most part, whatever enjoyment I extracted from this brief play came from re-encountering the characters from the Valois Trilogy, albeit here in paler, far less charming versions.

ABOVE: De Guise De-Dies


The Real Red Wedding : Alexandre Dumas – “Queen Margot”

According to Mario Vargas Llosa, Ernest Hemingway once unceremoniously punched a foolish fan who made the unfortunate mistake of saying hello while Papa imbibed his Mojito at El Floridita. So it’s best to agree with Hemingway when he counted Alexandre Dumas’ “Queen Margot” among his favorite novels in a 1935 Esquire interview, up there with the likes of “War and Peace” and “Huckleberry Finn.”

ABOVE: A Nice Christian Gathering

“Queen Margot”, from 1845, follows the  “The Two Dianas”, “The Page of the Duke of Savoy” and “The Horoscope” chronologically, and puts us right in the middle of the French Wars of Religion that saw Catholics and Huguenots exercise their righteous Christian love upon each other, (inevitably resulting in several million deaths.) The inciting event is the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre – the original red wedding. The arranged marriage between the Catholic Marguerite of Valois and the Protestant Henri III of Navarre appeared to be Catherine de Medici’s benevolent peace-making attempt between the followers of the Duke de Guise and the Huguenots of Admiral Coligny. Protestant leaders poured into Paris to celebrate the love match, and the grand new era of religious tolerance that was bound to ensue. Much merriment was had by all for five days.

Then King Charles IX ordered Coligny’s assassination, the doors to Paris closed, and thousands of Huguenots were slaughtered before they’d had time to wipe the wedding cake crumbs off their face. Even the newlywed Henry barely managed to escape the massacre.

Dumas captures the chaos of St. Bartholomew through the eyes of two of his classic heroes: Dashing Protestant La Mole and head-bashing Catholic Annibal de Coconnas. They first meet as sworn enemies and soon find themselves the most devoted of brothers. Their touching cross-denominational friendship is even more concentrated than the friendship of the Musketeers, (which, after all, had to go four ways.) La Mole and Coconnas are Asterix and Obelix, Tom and Huck, Orestes and Pylade. To read the duo as homo-erotic might be a stretch, but some of their scenes do raise modern eyebrows, (like the one in which Coconnas refuses to sleep with his mistress, having sexually wilted duing La Mole’s temporary absence.)

In any case, La Mole attracts the attention of Marguerite de Valois, Queen Margot.

ABOVE: Queen There, Done That

Dumas’ portrait of Queen Margot is one of kind, generous sensuality. She manages to have four or five different love interests throughout the novel without any of them feeling insincere. Even her relationship with her confidant, Duchesse de Nevers, overflows with teh sexy, and here the modern reader may freely and confidently raise modern eyebrows.

The queen said: “Have you forgotten our agreement, my dear Duchess?”

“No; I shall be your respectful servant in public—in private, your madcap confidante, is it not so, madame? Is it not so, Marguerite?”

“‘Yes, yes,” said Margot, smiling.

“No family rivalry, no treachery in love; everything fair, open, and aboveboard! An offensive and defensive alliance, for the sole purpose of finding and, if we can, catching on the fly, that ephemeral thing called happiness.”

“Just so, duchess. Let us again seal the compact with a kiss.”

And the two beautiful women, the one so pale, so full of melancholy, the other so roseate, so fair, so animated, joined their lips, as they had united their thoughts.

Clearly Margot swang both ways.

ABOVE: Margot Got Game

Actually, she swings in a  multitude of ways, forming alliances and ducking accusations from maleficent Catherine de Medicis, (whose poison-loving ways give the novel two or three memorably tense moments.) “Queen Margot” got adapted into a lavish historical epic in 1994, starring Isabel Adjani and Vincent Perez. A fittingly sensual spectacle, it may be well be the best Dumas movie adaptation, because it respects the complex, adult nature of its source material, instead of assuming it’s all sword-swinging kiddie fun.


Far Out, Far Underground : Robert Crumb et al. – “Zap Comix”

ABOVE: What’s Zappening?

Rarely is the word “seminal” as doubly appropriate as it is when talking about the goo-splattered pages of Robert Crumb’s “Zap Comix.” The American underground comix (only an X would do) had its big bang there in 1967, when Crumb drew “Zap #0.”

ABOVE: Plug Burn

Or so goes hippie legend.

As Spain (the cartoonist, not the country)  humorously put it decades later in “Zap #14″, after the gold rush, during the de-mythologizing process: “And what’s this s**t about Crumb starting underground comics? He may have put out the first comic but me and Kim Deitch were doing comics for the East Village Other before we ever heard of him, and before us was Bill Beckman, Trina and Nancy Panizika. Just setting the record straight.”

Sure, but Crumb was the pater familias of the Zap clan, (which included Spain, Victor Moscoso, S. Clay Wilson, Gilbert Shelton, Rick Griffin, Robert Williams.)  Crumb’s work was the big umbrella under which the lot gathered to hash out the future of counter-cultural funnies. Crumb made it easy: he hovered sardonically above the hippie movement, bemused by the LSD-driven non-sense, (although not beyond partaking.) That meant his satire reached wider than San Francisco.

The others were more IN it, but more insular for it. Griffin and Victor Moscoso were definitive masters of psychedelic poster art: Griffin was down with the Grateful Dead, and Moscoso (perhaps the most formally artistic of the crew) practically plastered the Summer of Love with his eye-melting posters.  Spain had even biked with the Road Vultures gang whose adventures he chronicles. The biker territory is also amply covered by S. Clay Wilson in “Zap.” Wilson’s intricate-yet-chaotic art is inventively vulgar, using slangy stream-of-consciousness text that convolutes itself into resembling that of William S. Burroughs, but he returns to his obsessions, (bikers, pirates and zombies) so frequently that it gets tiresome. Robert Williams could also be shocking in the pursuit of the psychedelic, but weird as his Coochy Cooty character is, I wager Williams will always be most remembered for his “Appetite for Destruction” artwork.

Spain: Bwaaaaaaa

Griffin: Anagrams rock!

Moscoso: Whoooaaaahhhh

S. Clay Wilson: This was pretty much the least graphically obscene Wilson drawing I could find.

Williams: Bon Appetite

It made sense for Crumb to be the first to give up on “Zap” in the 2000s. (WELL, Griffin, who had become a born-again Christian in the 70s, died in 1991, but that was hardly a voluntary retreat.)  It’s not that Crumb had gotten too big for his buds after the unlikely mainstream fame brought by Terry Zwigoff’s biographical documentary. It wasn’t even that he was busy with his other work, (Crumb was always effortlessly prolific). He was simply aware that the times, they had majorly a-changed. The kids had moved on to Daniel Clowes by then, and far-out stories of Haight-Ashbury freak-outs were from a world as distant and quaint as P. G. Wodehouse’s. Late-comer Paul Mavrides, (whose work I know very little about, beyond the fact that he contributed to Shelton’s “Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers”) was brought in to the fold to make up for Crumb’s absence, but it wasn’t the same.

In 2014, Fantagraphics published the final issue of “Zap” (thus far), which means the anthology endured for nearly 46 years. That’s a longer stranger trip than anyone could have reasonably anticipated.


Not Kiddin’ Around : Wander Antunes – “The Eye of the Devil”

ABOVE: Diablo!


Captain William Kidd’s out-sized fame as a pirate rests on how well-documented his trial for piracy was. In reality, the Scottish-born Kidd was a relatively minor player in highly contested seas – and many historians even hesitate to designate him a pirate, but rather a forward-thinking proto-capitalist “privateer.”  It’s sort of like there’s a fine line between a gangster and an overly aggressive businessman. After some time as a well-trusted law enforcer in the Adventure Galley, Kidd and his increasingly rowdy crew realized that hunting pirates was nowhere near as profitable as BEING pirates. So they switched sides.

That’s the historical Kidd.

The not-so-historical one in Wander Antunes’ “Eye of the Devil” switches from merchant sailing to blood-thirsty piracy on a random whim, and fares rather well at it until he robs a conquered ship of a cursed red ruby and vaguely supernatural trouble begins. Kidd has an earthier problem within his crew: our real hero, Sean Hawkins, a man who has sworn to take revenge on all piracy – and who remains undercover to undermine Kidd from within.

ABOVE: Mutiny, I promise you

That’s the book’s mutinous best “twist” and, had it been more leisurely explored, it could have given “The Eye of the Devil” a “Donnie-Brasco-on-the-High-Seas” feel, and some semblance of originality.

But notice that the name of our undercover pirate is Sean Hawkins. That’s a too-lazy wink to Jim Hawkins from Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Treasure Island,” and the album has more winks like it, to everything from Daniel Defoe’s “Robinson Crusoe” to the Tom Hanks/Wilson duo from “Castaway” to “Pirates of the Caribbean.” That level of obviousness lets you know that writer Antunes and artist Tirso Cons are steering right through sailing routes that are too familiar… but they do so swiftly enough that few travelers will have time to be dissatisfied.


P. S.:

The New Pornographers with “Mutiny, I Promise You.” It’s not in any way related but it was coincidentally playing as I wrote this and I couldn’t resist.