2018 May 18 • Wednesday

Bill Griffith is best known as the creator of Zippy the Pinhead, whose newspaper strip I used to love reading when I was a teenager. Invisible Ink: My Mother's Secret Love Affair with a Famous Cartoonist is a book-length "graphic memoir" of extraordinary depth and complexity, which deserves a place on the list of the best of such works.

There is a problem with the subtitle, though. The cartoonist in question isn't famous. I had never heard of him or anything he'd done and I'd be more likely than most people to have done so.

While the subtitle is negligible, it does point to a problem with marketing. Everything has to be big and famous to be worth your time, apparently, but one of the fascinating things about this book is its dissection of a placid world, a story about a white, American, middle-class family with a house in Long Island and pretty much everything that's supposed to be included in the American dream.

Like the autobiographical work of Seth or Chester Brown, its power is derived from an unsparing look at the artist's homelife and childhood, but Griffith draws on letters, archives, conversations, published and unpublished writings by the principals and memories to create a mesmerizing mosaic of real people's feelings and behaviors, all of it imbued with mystery as none of it can ever be completely explained.

There will always be questions.

Griffith's use of the comics medium to tell his story, almost as dazzling as Alison Bechdel's deployment of the various tools and techniques of the form in Are You My Mother?, allows readers to float with him spectrally in and our of present and past, dreams and realities, novels and newspapers and letters and comic strips.

There doesn't seem to be any point to providing a synopsis. Obviously his mother has an affair with a cartoonist. It goes on for about sixteen years and while not everything can ever be known, Griffith's explorations amount to an artistic demonstration of Locard's exchange principle: "every contact leaves a trace".

It's easy to read this in one sitting but don't turn the pages too quickly. Even a casual reader of Zippy would surely notice the strength and versatility of Griffith's line, and the visual qualities of this book are stunning.

While I've always been a Griffith fan, I didn't know he had something like this in him or that it would ever come out. I hope he can do more longer works like this.


2018 May 16 • Wednesday

The first Ace "Two in One" pocket paperback I ever bought was Junkie and Narcotic Agent. These are books that have two front covers and contain two novels in one small package. Finish one, flip it over and read the other.

That particular book was the first printing of William S. Burroughs's first novel, Junkie, published under the name of William Lee.

I read Junkie but not Narcotic Agent. I loaned it to my brother, who I think did the same. We both liked it.

Maybe I let a bunch of other people borrow it too. I don't remember and I didn't think much of it. I bought it for fifty cents in a used bookstore in Pennsylvania almost thirty years ago.

Some years after the purchase I found out that it's actually worth quite a bit more, perhaps a few hundred dollars. I still have it here somewhere.

But I just read both titles in an Ace Two in One for the first time: One in Three Hundred and The Transposed Man. It was a very enjoyable experience.

The beautiful cover paintings are naturally the first things you might notice and a primary reason I bought the book. No matter how gorgeous the cover, however, I won't buy a book that I can't imagine reading someday. And here I made good on that implicit contract.

I didn't see an artist's name mentioned in the book but according to this amazing website about the Ace double novels (which appears to be created and/or maintained by a professor of archaelogical ceramics at the University of North Carolina Wilmington—or something!), we should give credit to Ed Valigursky.

The second thing you might notice is that the copyright on both books belongs to James MacGregor, even though the authors on the cover are J. T. McIntosh and Dwight V. Swain. The Ace website asserts that McIntosh is a pseudonym for MacGregor but has nothing to say about Swain other than that The Transposed Man is his only novel.

Which leads us to the third thing: One in Three Hundred (©1953, 1954) is a fairly short novel at about 222 pages but The Transposed Man (©1955, "magazine version" ©1953), at 97 pages, is just barely a novella.

But no matter! They're both great, regardless of length and authorship. And they're also very different.

One in Three Hundred takes as its starting point one of my frequent nightmares. Life on Earth, all of it, will soon be obliterated and only a small sample of humanity can be transferred to a different planet to survive. The nightmare for me is that, it seems to me, if this were to happen, it would be a slam dunk that all the worst people in the world would go.

All of our "elected representatives" would naturally fill the spaceships. They make the laws, they control government, and didn't we already choose them to represent us? Isn't this merely the logical continuation of representation, an ultimate representation? You'd find every member of Congress blasting off to ruin some other planet but not a single barista or graphic novelist.

When it came to creative types, "artists", it would probably be a slam dunk for awards winners, another kind of representative. It could be that that trumpet player on the subway platform is a zillion times better than, say, Ed Sheeran, but how many times have you heard that trumpet player on the radio?

One in Three Hundred somewhat sidesteps this awkward situation with a neat premise. First it's established that all life on Earth is doomed. Our sun is going to flare up and burn more brightly for a while. But it's going to increase the temperature on the planet to something like 500º Celsius (almost 1000º Fahrenheit) and, well, that's game over.

At first it seems like there's no solution at all so nobody does anything about it. Nothing to be done. But then it turns out that Mars is going to be okay, maybe even better in the long run, and there's already a colony there so it's a question of getting as many people as possible to Mars.

There's a handful of large spaceships that can take on a bunch of people and provisions but then thousands of "lifeships" are hastily thrown together, each one capable of carrying ten passengers.

Anybody qualified to fly one of these things can pick the ten people to go. But they pick them out of a group of strangers, each prospective pilot assigned to a community of three thousand people (hence the book's title).

The hero and narrator, Bill Easson, is sent to Simsville, population 3261, to select ten to go with him. (A neighboring town with a population of about 12,000 has four different pilots making selections in that community, and that's how it goes worldwide.)

The action starts briskly. This is the first line: "I ignored the half-human thing that ran at my heels like a dog cring '"'Please! Please! Please!'"

Easson is a typical mid-century American genre fiction protagonist: level-headed and phlegmatic, competence and of solid character. And certainly you'll find familiar conventions here as regards women and men and attitudes about sex.

And also like quite a bit of this territory from that time (consider The Twilight Zone's "The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street"), you'll find surprising undercurrents of cynicism and criticism, of both individuals and society, which lead to some unexpected turnarounds. "The more I learned about people, the more likely they were to come off my list," thinks Easson.

The woman who's written off for sexual promiscuity turns out to be a better candidate for jumpstarting a new more ethical society than is the chaste and superficially more suitable schoolteacher who's Easson's first choice.

The town's most desirable candidate for selection, the one everybody including Easson knows should go, turns out to be a murderous psychopath and sadist.

Early on a conspiracy theory is floated. With only eight weeks to prepare for the end of the world, and humanity already freaking out, either in deadly riots or lunatic fringe religions, who can say whether these thousands of lifeships even exist? Maybe it's just a ploy to pacify the population.

Easson puts it this way: "Problem: If two thousand skilled men can build a lifeship in a hundred days, how long will it take a thousand unskilled men to do it? Answer: 56 days".

It would be a different book if it went in this direction but the lifeships are real. They aren't built very well, however, and it seems that pretty much all of them don't have enough fuel. Use enough to break away from Earth and you won't have enough to manage landing on Mars. Crash now or crash later.

Easson opts for later and the higher g-forces result in one of the passengers getting crushed to death during take-off.

It's that kind of book. Don't get too attached to the characters, even though they're well drawn and differentiated from one another.

When they leave Earth they leave religion, too. The last thing the representatives of mainstream faiths do is smooth out the transition and aid the few people chosen to get to the spaceships, by distracting everybody else.

Mars at first means nothing but work, every day and intensively, for survival. In time, though, it becomes clear that not everybody who was brought along was a great choice. There are budding power brokers and dictators and it isn't long before there's corruption, hastened along by the invention of money.

And this after so many other conventions, of thought, religion, marriage, dress, were left behind!

Did J. G. Ballard encounter this book? A sequence of a massively destructive storm on Mars anticipates parts of his first novel (which he was very determined to disown), The Wind from Nowhere. An earlier passage detailing the Earth's destruction also seems in sympathy.

If you like this sort of thing and you don't mind surfing the waves of 1950s attitudes and assumptions about various things, then this book is highly recommended.

The Transposed Man is an entirely different story, in every possible way. While One in Three Hundred pursued a fairly simple story in a procedural sort of way and easily brought to life about a twenty different characters who all seemed like they could be real people, at least if you didn't dig too deeply into it, The Transposed Man is all action and practically no character at all.

What the hell is going on here anyway? Our narrator is apparently a spy, saboteur, secret agent and terrorist for the Meks, the Society of Mechanists. And what is it they want? I'm not really sure. Something about using science to destroy anything that's not science maybe? And the rest of civilization, the opposition to the Meks, I'm not sure what they want either.

But I suppose it could be seen as an inversion of Alphaville, where an IBM agent is infiltrating the world of Tarzan instead of the other way around. As one Mek agents puts it, before the main character interrupts him: "The Society of Mechanists is dedicated to science and progress. The barrier is the FedGov's insistence on catering to the prejudices and emotions of the mob; the authorities' refusal to accept the counsel of superior minds—".

But it moves along so quickly and bombards the reader with so much sci-fi futuristic mumbo jumbo that it hardly seems to matter. Here, for example, is a simple description of a room: "tinted chromoid furnishings made less bleak by the sparkle of paradone insets, veldrene carpeting and Nacromean velvet drapes—a decor that combined triangularity with sleek Modarc curves.

None of those terms are ever explained and this kind of jargon is on almost every page.

"Someone put another coin in the musicord."

"I was looking at the perceptoscope's scanner screen."

"Over my shoulder, I glimpsed the man on top of the vanster swinging round his paragun."

"I took a light-bath and changed clothes, then went into the kitchen and scrambled together a quick lunch of sliced canna and gesk-meat sandwiches, washed down with a tube of foamy purple Venusian yar-beer."

The writing is actually really great throughout, though, quite imaginative and effectively indicating mood through small touches, the movement's of a character's hand, for instance. The author is especially good with atmosphere, whether it's a futuristic freak show or an abandoned radiation tunnel.

The main character can hop from one body to another using his pulsator and neurotrons. He does it quite a bit, too, reminding me a bit of the movie The Hidden.

But body hopping and impostors and mind control (also in this book) were themes to be found in a lot of science-fiction of the time: The Mind Thing, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Invaders from Mars...

This is usually written off as Cold War communist anxiety but the enemy within could just as easily be the rise of automation and technology and industry and the subsequent rise of powerful industrialists who could wield such power that democracy itself and the "American way of life"...

There might not be a need to look outside the border for sources of fear. After all, in The President's Analyst, didn't the big villain turn out to be the phone company?


2018 May 14 • Monday

While there's a tiny bit of "score" by Ken Thorne, the 517th Soundtrack of the Week really belongs to The Monkees. The title in question is Head.

It begins with "Opening Ceremony", an intentionally weird tape collage of snippets of dialogue and music from the movie with a layer of a man and a woman intoning "Head" on top of it. It's self-consciously trippy, like much of the movie itself, and if you're not high, you can skip it.

This is followed by a genuinely brilliant bit of sunshine psychedlia, "Porpoise Song (Theme from "Head"). This is actually one of my favorite songs, dreamy anbd laidback and groovy with a "Strawberry Fields" feel to it.

After this comes the goofy "Ditty Diego — War Chant", in which the Monkees make fun of themselves and their image has a prefabricated "phony" commercial band. They speed up and slow down the tape and, like with the movie itself, generally abandon caution and have fun.

"Circle Sky" is a suprisingly hard-driving song even though the texture of it is on the smooth and gentle side. There's something about the energy and structure of it that makes it proto-punk as well as psych garage.

Then there's a short chunk of "sound" called "Supplicio".

A real song follows that, the minor-key and vaguely Middle Eastern-sounding "Can You Dig It?", agreeably groovy and swinging.

You get a couple of tracks of dialogue from the movie after that, then a real Monkees-style song, "As We Go Along", a gentle and lilting number that plays with different meters.

Another bit of dialogue from the movie and then we hear Davy's black-and-white song and dance routine, "Daddy's Song", a sweetly old-fashioned song that Frank Zappa shows up to put down in the movie, and in the next track, "Poll", as "pretty white".

"Poll" is otherwise a mishmash of music and talking. These tracks, I'm not sure if they're just there to make the record long enough for a release of they're actually supposed to be something really interesting. I can live without them.

"Long Title: Do I Have To Do This All Over Again" is a great song, and just in time, lots of energy and great playing from everybody, with a special credit due to whoever's on bass. This is one of those songs where you really notice what the bass is doing.

The record ends with some pronouncements from a "swami" while there's more intoning of "Head" and overlayed fragments of talking, sound effects and music, plus some classical-style strings by Ken Thorne.

Watching the movie is a more rewarding experience than listening to the record is, but there are some great songs on Head and The Monkees are one of those few bands that are unusually and simultaneously really popular and under-rated.


2018 May 09 • Wednesday

Fanzines have been pretty much destroyed by web sites, but such things never really die. Bubbles pop but there are still operas, poems, people who study Latin and so on.

And when your subject is a specific and little known subsection of the category "book", then your ideal reader is likely to want something to put on the shelf.

Which is why I was unable to resist the first issue of a new fanzine called Hot Lead, dedicated to "The Western in Vintage Paperback".

As a vintage paperback enthusiast, I would have been sold on this no matter what. But the contents turned out to be truly educational.

The focus is primarily on hundreds of Western paperbacks, mostly written in England in response to the popularity of spaghetti Westerns. A group of writers known as the "Piccadilly Cowboys" cranked out several series under a fistful of pseudonymns and one of them, John Harvey, ends up later becoming well known and successful as a crime novelist.

The spaghetti Western changed the genre in ways that are equally mourned and celebrated, but identified the commercial potential in a new audience for an old standby. While the Western peaked in the mid-twentieth century as a powerful parable for liberal and democractic values, the late '60s and early '70s saw the European take on this American mythology reflecting an awareness of corruption, venality, cynicism and sex and violence.

All of that was already under the surface of great American westerns from the 1950s (and '40s and '60s to some extent), but the point of the movies were to remind audiences of the importance of due process and fair play, to demonstrate the importance of opposing bigotry and abuses of power.

By the late 1960s it would have to be obvious to many that the message wasn't getting through to the people in power. And so the stark brutality of the Euro western came to town.

To cash in on their success, these books followed their lead, spinning endless tales of vengeance and violence, with gore and kinky sex often swamping the pages. One book even transplants the action of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre to an old west setting.

Weapons, tortures and slayings become more far out in the effort to draw in readers—or, more accurately, purchasers.

Hot Lead is a fascinating look at what you can find in one of publishing's tide pools. Predictably, I want to read some of these books now!
2018 May 07 • Monday

The 516th Soundtrack of the Week is a new release from the Intrada label, Johnny Mandel's jazzy score for Harper.

We threw on the movie Saturday afternoon and saw most of it, falling asleep somewhere in the second half. It was surprising how much the opening sequence mirrors the opening scene of The Ipcress File. It's probably not a coincidence.

For the main theme Mandel has come up with a jaunty, bouncy, west coast jazz-inflected tune that's groovy and playful and guaranteed to get toes tapping at the same time as rewarding ears on the alert for interesting harmonies.

His secret weapon, the organ, makes its first appearance here, but really comes into its own in the instrumental pop "shake" tune "Harper Does It Better".

Mandel also gets a chance to demonstrate his talent at writing ballads. (He did, after all, write the Grammy- and Oscar-winning song "The Shadow of Your Smile".)

Strangely, the wonderful song "Quietly There", sung by Ruth Price, is on the record but not in the movie, excepting a very soft background instrumental version.

Mandel's other song, "Sure As You're Born", is a catchier, jazzier number that essentially adds words, sung by Sam Fletcher, to the main title theme.

"Livin' Alone" is another song sung in the film, but it's by André and Dory Previn.

Things get pumping in tht sixties groovy peppy style that has a ridiculous quality to it while also being irresistibly great in "Mexican Breakfast", which has a Herb Alpert feel to it.

"Harper's Ferry" is a great electric guitar feature and I wish I knew who was playing on this record. The usual suspects, no doubt, but I don't recognize this particular guitar sound.

Many fans of this score single out "Temple of the Clouds" as a highlight, and understandably so. It's a miniature modern masterpiece of mood and pacing, indescribably moving in its use of strings, harp and horns.

This movie came out in 1966 so of course there's bossa nova in it: "Bel Air", featuring piano with a beautifully laid back rhythm section.

Which leaves us only with "Finale (Susan)", a slowed down, brooding and melancholy variation on the main theme. It picks up at the very end to leave the viewer exiting the theater on a cheerful note.


2018 May 02 • Wednesday

Peter and Maria Hoey have returned with another issue of their wonderful and unusual comic book Coin-Op! This seventh volume is much larger than the first six were and is at least as delightfully designed, written and illustrated.

The first story, "Supply Chains", begins with the relatively simple process of how trees produce paper before flying off the rails into the anything but simple process by which people form relationships and sometimes produce other people, often with all sorts of setbacks, confusions, deceptions and betrayals.

After this comes the return of Saltz and Pepz in "Saltz and Pepz and the Eternal Sea", a short, wordless and dreamlike vignette with an urban legend punchline.

The third story, "Omegaville", is my favorite, in which the Eddie Constantine-Lemmy Caution character from Alphaville (as well as some much lesser known movies) leads us Virgil-like through an inferno of mid-century science-fiction movies, fipping the scripts quite literally on such classics as Them! and The Day the Earth Stood Still.

Old movies are a touchstone for the Hoeys, and a beautiful and kaleidoscopic two-page spread celebrating Ida Lupino acts as something of an intermission before launching into "Served Cold", a dazzling and dizzying challenge to the reader issued from the comics medium itself. How to read it? How to process the information and in what sequence? These are the fundamental questions of all comics even if the presentation rarely suggests a range of options.

Finally they close with an ode to producer Val Lewton, ever to be remembered for RKO thrillers such as Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie et al. (Jacques Tourneur and Nicholas Musuraca will always be linked to some of these films, and with good reason, and they are duly included by the Hoeys.)

My only worry is that Peter and Maria Hoey are not as well known as they deserve to be. If you're curious, check out Coin-Op Books.