In Cold Blood : Daniel Clowes – “Ice Haven”

“You want to know why we did it? Because we damn well felt like doing it.”

In 1924, two seemingly well-adjusted young men from “good families” abducted and murdered a 14-year-old boy because they were convinced they were bright enough to get away with it. They were indeed bright, perhaps remarkably so, but Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb got caught almost immediately, their “perfect murder” botched in a way that would be laughably idiotic if the circumstances weren’t so horrifying. (To wit, Leopold dropped his custom-made glasses at the crime scene! D’oh!)

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The Crime of the Century long before O. J. Simpson, the Leopold and Loeb case is at the chilling core of Daniel Clowes’ “Ice Haven,” a “comic strip novel” about the small titular town, where a boy named David Goldberg has disappeared. Has he been done in by a local L&L admirer?

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If Lloyd Llewellyn , “Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron,” and “David Boring” are, at least nominally, surreal mysteries, “Ice Haven” is more about what happens on the periphery of a mystery: David’s disappearance is an excuse to look at the lives of his family, his neighbors, his schoolmates – the surprisingly expansive circle of people touched by the loss of this most insignificant of lives, (and it’s no slight; David himself embraces his own insignificance with stoic pride.)

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Clowes, like most of his peers, is a child of the comic strip, and it’s in the Sunday Funnies format that “Ice Haven” unfolds; but although there are Schulz parodies here, (and “Nancy” and “Little Lulu” allusions and, heck, even nods to “The Flinstones”) these strips are mainly riffing on their own Daniel Clowes-ness.  That would be self-parody if “self-parody” didn’t usually suggest creative bankruptcy; to the contrary, there’s wealth in this slim volume. Think of it as Clowes’ illustrations for “Our Town” as inhabited by Nabokov characters. A listing of the novel’s wacky cast would read like a chapter index, and give too much away. Go saunter through “Ice Haven,” and meet its denizens. In the words of Random “Not Thornton” Wilder, (the town’s bespectacled, self-proclaimed bard): “It’s not as cold as it sounds.”

RATING: COOL! Perhaps too brief for MASTERPIECE!!!

P. S.:

“While prose tends toward pure ‘interiority,’ coming to life in the reader’s mind, and cinema gravitates toward the ‘exteriority’ of experiential spectacle, perhaps ‘comics,’ in its embrace of both the interiority of the written word and the physicality of image, more closely replicates the true nature of human consciousness and the struggle between private self-definition and corporeal ‘reality.’ ”

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Machete Kills! : Alex Segura – “Dangerous Ends”

“Defer no time, delays have dangerous ends” – William Shakespeare, “Henry VI, Part I”

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ABOVE: Presente y Pasado

When I last left Miami P.I. Pete Fernandez, he was venturing “Down the Darkest Street.” Some time has passed and now I find him up to “Dangerous Ends.” His best friend Kathy Bentley has published not one but TWO best-selling true crime books based on his exploits, and so it’s no surprise when he’s contacted (and contracted) by Maya Varela, the daughter of a notorious murderer; she means to exonerate her father, who was convicted on relatively slim evidence for a murder that, Maya insists, he never committed.

But then a jury can’t be expected to stay too rational when a man is accused of hacking his wife dozens of times with a machete, that most Cuban of sharp implements. ( The “Mambi” guerrillas that fought for Cuban independence in the 1860s-1890s had few rifles and often had to resort to what had essentially been a forest-clearing, sugar-cane cutting tool until then.)

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ABOVE: Educational Cuban cartoons: Teaching kids to slash into “the enemy” since 1959.

Pete’s Cuban ancestry has been a very subtle element in the series, but in “Dangerous Ends,” that Cuban past bluntly intrudes upon the present- as it often does on Miami streets. We learn that Pete’s grand-father Diego was exiled from the island after Fidel Castro’s 1959 take-over; several interludes fill-in the story of the Fernandez family, as Diego becomes an influential, anti-Castro radio personality in Miami.

Does Pete’s abuelo tie to the Varela murder? What about the brutal death of Rick Blanco, the husband of Pete’s lost love, Emily? And who exactly are Los Enfermos, the mysterious drug-running Miami gang that may have ties to the Castro regime?

As the novel asserts at one point, “It’s all connected.”

“Dangerous Ends” is the smoothest Pete Fernandez novel so far, and the one that truly announces Segura as an assured practitioner of the noir. Here, all the elements gel: theme, style, setting, plot, and character working together. The dark and sunny complexities of Miami’s history are explored in terse prose. The plot barrels forward confidently, taking several surprising twists, and opening quite a few possible doors for the next installment. (I can’t wait to read more about the history of Los Enfermos!) The ensemble finally comes into its own too: Kathy goes from foil to full-on no-nonsense partner; Dave Mendoza, the brawn in Fernandez’ investigating team, becomes more psychologically interesting (and more violently volatile?); and a former rival, retired FBI agent Robert Harrass, makes a welcome return, this time as the voice of experience and wisdom. As this series plays with continuity, (major characters fade in the distance; small characters re-appear, and may not be so small next time around) we’re aware that Pete’s world is still in flux, and that any of his peripherals may hide interesting secrets, or may switch allegiances or, you know, may get killed.

RATING: COOL!

P. S.: Like Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch, Pete Fernandez is a music lover, (we get a dutiful visit to Miami’s legendary Sweat Records) and so Sonic Youth and Neil Young and the Jam are alluded to- but it’s the Elena Burke allusion that his grandfather Diego might appreciate. Burke was a remarkable singer of Cuban boleros, great at squeezing longing from each note of her torch songs and somehow transforming that pain into joy. (Daughter Malena Burke is also a major Cuban icon; and grand-daughter Lena is a Latin Grammy nominee. Watch for Ena Burke to play Cuban music on the Moon in 2040.)

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ABOVE: You can guess which is which

 

Hanta Yo! : Jason Aaron and R. M. Guera: “Scalped”

ABOVE: “The Man who Ate People who Ate Other People.”

 

The Prairie Rose Indian Reservation is a fictional South Dakotan locale populated by the somewhat less fictional  Oglala Lakotas. In Jason Aaron and R. M. Guera’s crime saga “Scalped,” Oglala is the poorest American county, with an 80% unemployment rate and pitiable rates of alcoholism; every other store is a transparent front for a meth-lab; and Sheriff Lincoln Red Crow rules over his domain with the greedy rapaciousness of his animal name-sake.

Into this dead-end, one-horse town strides Dashiell Bad Horse, (turning Prairie Rose, I suppose, into a two-horse town.) Dash is an undercover FBI agent who has infiltrated Red Crow’s farcical “police” force; he’s also the Rez’ prodigal son, having lit out over a decade earlier for reasons that will only be slowly revealed. It’s a great / bad time for Dash to return to Prairie Rose. The new Crazy Horse casino is about to open, and with it a whole new can o’ criminal worms.

ABOVE: “Also, can you direct me to the nearest hospital? This head-wound is not gonna heal pretty.”

 

Dealing with the local ready-to-brawl toughs is easy. Much harder is dealing with the women from Dashiell’s past: Gina Bad Horse, the mother who perceives him as a race traitor; and Carol Ellroy, the former childhood sweetheart who once let Bad Horse watch her pee and is still waiting for reciprocity. Carol also happens to be Red Crow’s daughter- and the most openly, self-destructively promiscuous “heroine” in any non-erotic graphic novel I can recall. Maybe in any “novel” period.

Things get exponentially complicated over the 60 issues of this modern American classic.

ABOVE: Bad Horses Make Bad Romantic Decisions

 

By choosing to draw his cast from mostly corrupt non-heroes, Aaron is forced to explore the human complexity at the core of the inhuman criminality. We learn how the past influences the present through the secondary inhabitants of the rez: Diesel, the white boy trying to pass for Kikapoo; Officer Falls Down, the one un-bribable cop around; Dino Poor Bear, the kid who dreams of escaping the pervasive poverty; Baily Nitz, the FBI agent bitterly settling an ages old score; Catcher, a Rhodes Scholar/ alcoholic burnt-out who believes he gets messages from the Thunder Beings.

Dashiell is the familiar all-Native-American hero: ready to get violent on the quest for justice. Much more complex is the Big Bad, Lincoln Red Crow, a former Red Power idealist who traded integrity for success, wealth and power- all variables subject to the machinations of the higher-ups in the Tribal Council and rival gangsters.

Look past the grit and the deliberate ugliness of R, M. Guera’s work (best described as “Impressionistic Carnage”), this is a graphic novel of intense humanity, perhaps the most ambitious Native-American epic in modern pop culture, and even comparable to Sherman Alexie’s work in its unflinching understanding of the cultural dilemma of the Native American: The ultimate disenfranchised minority in its own native nation.

If you want the biggest representation fail in American culture, reflect on this. When you ask the average person what their favorite Native American actor or actresses are, they’ll stare blankly for a moment. After some deep thought, they’ll summon something like: “That one guy from ‘Longmire.’? Lou Diamond Phillips! Yeah, him!”

Lou Diamond Phillips is a Filipino-American.


RATING : MASTERPIECE!!!

 

Does This Have Enough Ls? : Daniel Clowes – “Lloyd Llewellyn”

“Eightball” would be Daniel Clowes’ first real achievement, with cynical shorts like “Art School Confidential” and “Devil Doll” padding the serialization of “Ghostworld” and “Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron.” “David Boring” would be the on-its-own breakthrough, and the first graphic novel I read that truly impacted me in subtler, novelistic ways. (“Maus,” after all, was non-fiction; subtlety is not among the many attributes of “Watchmen.”)

But before “Eightball” and “David Boring,” before becoming one of the most important graphic novelists of our time, Clowes had some doodling to do for Fantagraphics, and “Lloyd Llewellyn” was his first experimental comic, a Mad-Magazine-influenced send-up of everything 50s:

Greasers! Hepcats! Squares!  Flailing Robots! Barflies! B-Movie Space Punks! Everything to which exclamation points can be appended!

An average Lloyd Llewellyn detective tale starts much like a Lew Archer noir; but soon, Lloyd gives up all pretense at detection and devotes himself to keeping a straight face amid the increasingly surreal twists. Of course, straight faces are easy to keep when you’re this simply drawn. When Lloyd Llewellyn resurfaced in early issues of “20th Century Eightball,” the drawing technique was about 200 times better, and the lounge-noir gimmick was so gone that a “Lloyd Llewellyn Adventure” could simply involve vitriolic ranting. (I love when misanthropy is unleashed, as it is in Clowes’ classic “I Hate You Deeply” or in Ivan Brunetti’s ‘Schizo.’)

“If you aren’t either a) exactly like me only a little worse at everything, or b) a pathetic yes-man to my every changing values and shallow opinions, I HATE YOU DEEPLY!”

RATING: GOOD ENOUGH; the best was yet to come.

Patricia Highsmith – “Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction”

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ABOVE:

 

Patricia Highsmith’s “Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction” is not likely to help anyone to plot and/or write suspense fiction. One picks it up for shop-talk from a writer who, by most accounts, was not particularly fun to talk to in person. Book pages are a good buffer. Here the reader can find several detailed examples of things that worked for the author at given times in her career, but beyond the common-sense advice (“don’t go on for 100 pages after your novel’s climax”) what’s interesting is Highsmith’s personal untangling of  knotty plotline problems, which is not something many other writers could replicate profitably. Good tips on napping during writing blocks, though.

RATING : GOOD ENOUGH