Thursday, November 7, 2002

I forget exactly what I was doing. I think just driving home for dinner at my parents’ house last week. I had about a half-hour to spare so I stopped into the comix shop at 51st and Lamar. In that little strip center. Austin Books. It rained all that day and the wet and the crumbling plaster cast on my leg had me feeling out of sorts.

For me, taking a respite in a bookstore of some sort really helps calm my brain. They’re quiet, and new books deliver tidy packets of character and experiences when the real world keeps holding back…

So I hobbled into Austin Books and situated myself over along the wall to the right of the entrance, where all the non-superhero comix live. Not sure what to call them besides that. Superhero comix and non-superhero. I think of them as indy-rock comix just because the attitude behind them seems similar: they’re fun, colorful artistic shots out into space — just subversive enough to have an edge, but with an honest sort of… flavor. I don’t know. I do know that I have never gone into a comix shop looking for something in particular, yet I always come out with something I really enjoy. (The only exception so far being Road to Perdition, but I didn’t buy that, my dad did. And, granted, I only go into comix shops about twice a year.)

Anyway. The book I ended up grabbing — at the last second, really — was a compilation called SPX2002, published by the Comics Legal Defense Fund. It’s got a bright pink cover with orthographic letters on the from “s” “p” and “x” tilted in such a way that they look like “sex.” And a hand with a mouth on the palm. That’s on the cover, too.

I liked the design. Books are physical experiences for me as well as mental ones. Something nice and solid with pages that feel nice and a solid graphic design job really just does it for me. Ugly books I just don’t feel attracted to. During college I took this attitude that a book was more than just the words inside, that a book should be looked upon as a complete art object. And some authors really get into this idea — Dave Eggers being the one that sticks out in my mind most of all. You might have read A Heart-Breaking Work of Staggering Genius. I read the first 100-or-so pages and I really didn’t get too into it and ended up not finishing. But the feel of the book is great, with the footnotes and graphic on the back. And I dig Egger’s McSweeney’s publications. The last one came in a lovely cardboard-and-cloth-bound book with an embossed bird on the cover — felt like books used to feel when I was a kid and books on my parent’s shelves were thick curious tomes. The one before that was a rough cardboard sheet wrapped around about a dozen seperate individually-printed novellas. Each with a different cover. All wrapped up with the world’s largest rubber band. And in that one the stories kicked ass: Courtney Eldridge, JT Leroy, Kevin Brockmeier… I love surrealism in literature and these stories definitely have surrealism. (The Eldridge story is especially cool.) So anyway. I like good-looking books. I’m very superficial that way.

Back to the matter at hand.

I bought this pink SPX2002 book. Not exactly realizing what it was. A collection of short comix — mostly less than ten pages long — yes. But a collection of biographical comix. That I didn’t realize until I started reading.

So I’ve read almost all of them, now. Some are mostly straightforward sorts of bios. Like the St. Clare of Assisi (patron saint of t.v.), Don Leslie (inventor of the Leslie speaker), and Terry Sawchuk (NHL goalie) ones. Some have presentations that reflect the person they’re about, such as the Lester Beall (graphic designer), Jorge Luis Borges (writer), Edward Gorey (cartoonist), and Kasimir Malevich (painter) ones. The Rasputin (clergyman) and Davey Crockett pieces play with form, the first drawn as a parody of goofy newspaper serial comics and the last entitled “Peep This Shit! It’s the Motherfuckin’ Story of Davey! Davey Crockett!” A few are just about quirky lives — such as Jocko Flocko (monkey racecar passenger), the Jaccuzzi brothers (guess), and the Invisible Scratch Piklz (DJs) — drawn in a quirky style.

The best ones of the lot are the ones where the novelty of the lives really shine through. The visual medium brings some of these stories alive in ways a written bio never could. Sounds cheezy to say that, I guess, but it’s true. More than a half-dozen of these really resonated with me. A couple just had really cool perspectives on issues that our culture traditionally define very narrowly. I don’t know if that makes sense. One is about Typhoid Mary, for example. The legend is of a woman carrying typhoid who managed to track the disease across parts of early America. Joyce Brabner (the authress of the piece) flips it around into a story of a woman lost and alienated and abused. It even manages to pull into the fold opinions about the destructiveness of modern-day corporatization and specialization. (By comparing it to the situation leading up to the Irish potato famine, the event that caused Mary to come to the US in the first place.) Another story is about just “Jane,” a prostitute — a friend of the narrator of the story — who keeps a happy, undamaged, good life dispite (or because of) her profession. And told in a very believable, non-cliched way. (The Hooker with a Heart of Gold is a stereotype of sorts, but this character is definitely not that stereotype.)

The story of Frederick Banting really drew me in, as well. Not so much for the new perspective as much as for the medical history lesson. Banting developed insulin (and won a Nobel for his efforts — the first Canadian to do so). So did the story of PT Barnum (you know). His story just told about a single incident in his childhood which, if true, seems to be the defining event for a man who would later be quoted as saying, “There’s a sucker born every minute.” Then there’s the weird Bourbaki (mathematician) story — which I still haven’t decided whether to consider true or some sort of joke. The end note refers to a paper by Alan Sokol called “Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity” which was, I believe, given to a respected magazine to publish (which it did) as a hoax — a statement about how postmodern theory had become about stringing twelve-letter words like “hermeneutics” together rather than saying anything in particular about anything. I want to know more about this. The book has made me want to know more about a bunch of people.

A few more stories that really struck me: Hedy Lamarr, a German actress who starred in a little porn, did a Cecil B. Demille film (Samson and Delilah) and then got a patent for a technology that would later become one of the bases for satellite technology. Whoa. And the story of “Mezz” Mezzrow (jazz trumpeter) is a touching tale about the destruction caused by trying to kick a drug habit. And no one should live without knowing the names Haruo Nakajima (the guy who played Godzilla in all of those films), Jack Nance (the guy who played Eraserhead), and Howard Scott Warshaw (that man who made the game that killed Atari). Good stuff.

So good stuff good stuff. A few of the stories miss, but for such a compilation this has a very high hit-rate.