Polychromal Spree : Victor Moscoso – “Color”

There was something missing from the pages of Robert Crumb’s “Zap Comix” : Color, (which is not the same as colorfulness.) Victor Moscoso’s 1971 “Color” was a self-explanatory attempt to remedy that: the first full color comic to come out of the underground, it’s a storyboard of sorts for a short film that didn’t really come to fruition until many years later: if you can track down the rare cartoon that eventually emerged from the concept, “Cosmic Comics,” give yourself a pay in the back, you persistent hippie.


Babble On : Nicholas Ostler – “Empires of the Word : A Language History of the World”

“Who was ever silenced like Tyre, surrounded by the sea?”– Ezekiel, 27 : 32

ABOVE: Word Up and Down

What silences a language? Conversely, what turns a particular set of sounds into a country’s enduring  standard of communication? Nicholas Ostler’s “Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World” tries to untangle the twisted routes of linguistic expansion, concentrating on dozens of the most successful tongues as they evolved through time. Akkadian, Aramaic, Arabic. Mandarin, Swahili. Spanish, English. Indo-European, Afro-Semitic. Latin and Greek and Farsi. Ostler doesn’t just ask the seemingly unsolvable questions of “What makes the spread of languages a success? Is it religious imposition? Military might? Economic trends? Ease of usage?” Ostler also offers the best available answers, even if  they’re not ones that would surprise the wiser lovers of history: “All of the above. None of the above. It depends.”

The tale behind the world’s polyphonic proliferation stands in contrast to the Biblical myth of the Tower of Babel, (inspired by the understandable, xenophobic discomfort that Hebrew exiled experience in that cosmopolitan maze.) Humans didn’t separate because they spoke different  languages. They spoke different languages BECAUSE they separated. Ostler points out the myth is doubly off the mark given that, in almost unprecedented and rarely duplicated manner, the Babylonian government heavily enforced the official language, Akkadian, for over two thousand years.

ABOVE: “Ok, that’s it, I don’t understand these construction workers, we’re calling it quits.”


ABOVE: Tablet ( Version .000001.)

5,000 years of history follow, with dozens of major languages treated like heroic characters in a historical saga: emerging from nomadic obscurity, overcoming odds, and sometimes dwindling with the inevitability of a Greek tragedy. Inevitably, the book comes around to the role played by English, the world’s current powerhouse. (More people speak Chinese – but as a native language, within the confines of China.) It is hardly a thing to feel secure about, and English speakers would do well to check our hubris: French, which was only a century ago the preferred “lingua franca,” (notice the root of the second word) is now only slightly more spoken than Urdu, (a fact my high school French teacher failed to stress.)

Revealing and though provoking as “Empire of the Word” can be, it suffers slightly due to the dry stylistic choices, the general repetitiveness of expansion patterns, the density of geographical detail, and the linguistic annotations that will puzzle and/or bore the uninitiated: “The lower-Bactrian dialect of the second millennium B.C. lacked the glottal stop of the feminine suffixes as in -‘tzk or -‘jku, (contractions of ‘arutzk’ and ‘punjku’) as well as the ending nominative of the conjunctive fricative found in the ‘zkt sound of the latter-upper-Bactrian term ‘zktuzkt.'”

SURE, if you say so! This was a perfect under-the-hood complement to Peter Watson’s much more entertaining “Ideas.”

RATING: COOL! for content, GOOD ENOUGH for narrative drive.

Young Jules and the Pere : Jules Verne – “The Count of Chanteleine”

ABOVE: That’s a great cover

Poor Jules Verne: no American respect. No literary survey of the 19th century could truly be complete without him, and by any account he wrote wrote four or five of the most influential novels of all time, and yet, like Dumas, he’s considered a “genre” writer at best this side of the Atlantic, or worse, “for kids.” The “serious” reputation of both authors is ruined in headier circles by their shared lack of interest in “psychology,” (and mediocre bowdlerized translations, and limited availability of their large back catalogs- their respective fans insist.) True, no one would ever confuse either with Henry James, but Henry James features no lost worlds full of dinosaurs, no battles against giant octopi, and no sword-singing avengers in his bibliography. So really, who’s winning?

In 1848, a young Verne arrived at Paris to make literary connections, eager to reach out to the twin rulers of the era: Victor Hugo and Alexandre Dumas pere. His meeting with the patriarchal Dumas went particularly well: Dumas helped Verne stage his first play at the Lyric Theatre and hired him as a secretary. In turn, Verne ran by Dumas the plan for the “Extraordinary Voyages,” an on-going exploration of boundaries scientific and geographical that would eventually involve 50 + novels. Dumas must have been relieved that Verne’s interest in the past was cursory: the young man was looking to the future through a telescope of rarely-matched power.

ABOVE: Half Dumas, Half Verne

And yet Verne’s first serious novel, 1864’s “The Count of Chanteleine,” is very much a Dumas homage, (as if the title didn’t give that away!) and hints at what the father of science fiction might be like, had he dedicated himself to the historical feuilleton.

Dense in historical allusions, “The Count” is a revenge story set in the aftermath of the French Revolution, during the Vendee. The Whites and the Blues clash brutally, the nobility and the clergy are imperiled, and the property of the Count of Chanteleine falls under the hands of a dastardly former vassal who is now a powerful Republican “Citoyen.” So the Count, his daughter, and a self-sacrificing servant named Kernan escape – only to come back later under guises to get revenge.

ABOVE: That’s a Bretonne bonnet, btw.

But Dumas can usually look at history with a deity’s bemused remove, (say, pitting Papists against Huguenots in his novels about the Wars of Religion without expressing any particular partiality or undue contempt.) Verne is nothing like that. In “The Count of Chanteleine,” the political lines are clear: his nobles are, well, NOBLE and beyond reproach; the Republicans are dirty Godless bastards. Good royalist Catholics go to Heaven; the rest can go to Hell. (Dumas, Balzac, and Hugo are all much more nuanced about the topic of la Vendee in, respectively, “The Whites and the Blues,” “The Chouans,” and “Quatre-Vingt Treize.” Verne is much closer to the reactionary views expressed in Baroness Orczy’s “The Scarlet Pimpernel,” although this is not to be mistaken for some general political bent of his. It’s more of a story-telling need: Verne wants good guys and bad guys, and clearly the ones with the guillotines are the bad guys.)

And whereas Dumas lets his plots breathe, (sometimes inhaling the entirety of an era within their lungs) here Verne rushes breathlessly from event to event, wrapping everything up with a historical Deux Ex Machina (the 9th of Thermidor) that sadly solves all the character’s problems without making them agents of their own fate.

The problem is that he really wasn’t a romancer; he was a traveler. The romancer examines the heart, the traveler can’t stand still that long. Maybe the biggest hint of where the muse was calling Verne is in the way that he keeps digressing from the Dumasian aspects of his tale in order to enumerate landmarks and describe the flora of the Bretagne. Take the way Verne approaches the “falling-in-love” episode between “the boy” and “the girl.” Dumas would certainly have had the couple banter, first coyly, then wittily, and finally passionately. Verne avoids dialogue. Instead, HIS “boy” takes the “girl” out to give her a thorough geological tour of the northern French coastline – he can name every bay, cliff, promontory and boulder – and we’re meant to believe his knowledge of rocks leave her swooning!

Clearly (and luckily for science fiction), Dumas Pere and Verne were meant to diverge. Instead, Verne become life-long friends with Alexandre Dumas, fils.

RATING: GOOD ENOUGH for most; INTERESTING for fans of Verne’s bigger hits who would enjoy seeing a different side.

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