Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Two Comics Collections: A Twosday Twofer

The Wizard of Id: 1972 Daily and Sunday Strips, by Brant Parker and Johnny Hart, Titan Books.

I think everyone likes to remember certain periods of the past by the best products of the time. When I recall what it was actually like to live in the 1970's, I think of ubiquitous cigarette smoke, awful synthetic fabric, and social and political unrest everywhere. One of the best things that came out of the Seventies (and one of the few things that made them bearable to live through) was the humor. And I find that some of the best humor is now preserved in these yearly collections of The Wizard of Id.

Created by Brant Parker and Johnny Hart, punched up by gag writers Jack Caprio and Dick Boland, the comic is set in the pseudo-medieval Kingdom of Id, ruled over by a short and short-tempered King. His main advisers are the Wizard (an incompetent magician) and Rodney (a cowardly knight). The concept of the strip allows for a broad spectrum of humor, from full-out jokes on human nature, to jabs at the social problems of the day, to fantasy-specific gags about magic and fairy tales (these last I particularly enjoy). Because of the Cloud-Cuckoo-Land setting the humor seems less of a period piece and more perpetually applicable.

The Complete Peanuts: 1985 to 1986, by Charles Schulz, Fantagraphic Books. Foreword by Patton Oswalt.

Few people reverence the art and achievement of Charles Schulz or love his creation, Peanuts, more than I do, but I have to admit (which I think few connected to the project of publishing the complete strips would) that by the mid-Eighties the comic was definitely on the downswing. Much of the humor seems to be Schulz saying "Look at these wacky trends! Aren't they funny?" rather than making any real gags. It's kind of like seeing your grandfather, if he been an elegant champion-grade ballroom dancer, trying to stay relevant by attempting to break dance. Patton Oswalt in his introduction points out how much of the comic during these years are "shadow autobiography," dealing with lawyers and product licencing; other parts seem recursive, the characters and established themes feeding in on themselves instead of blossoming outward.

But there are occasional nuggets of silver in the silt, if little gold, and I intend to keep collecting this series to the end, which should come in seven more volumes. As I said, I love Peanuts, and this complete collection will make obsolete a ton of the old Fawcett-Crest paperbacks I've been collecting since I was in second grade. With this volume I finally noticed a design feature of this set. On the spine of each cover is a little oval cartouche with a different Peanuts character. On the books from 1950 to 1974 the characters are walking to the left; on the 1975-1976 volume Charlie Brown stares straight ahead; after that, the characters are headed to the right. They seem to be headed to the future. I am going that way with them.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

I Think It's About...Forgiveness

"...We might try to understand exactly what loving your neighbour as yourself means. I
have to love him as I love myself. Well, how exactly do I love myself?

Now that I come to think of it, I have not exactly got a feeling of
fondness or affection for myself, and 1 do not even always enjoy my own
society. So apparently "Love your neighbour" does not mean "feel fond of
him" or "find him attractive." I ought to have seen that before, because, of
course, you cannot feel fond of a person by trying. Do I think well of
myself, think myself a nice chap? Well, I am afraid I sometimes do (and
those are, no doubt, my worst moments) but that is not why I love myself. In
fact it, is the other way round: my self-love makes me think myself nice,
but thinking myself nice is not why I love myself. So loving my enemies does
not apparently mean thinking them nice either. That is an enormous relief.
For a good many people imagine that forgiving your enemies means making out
that they are really not such bad fellows after all, when it is quite plain
that they are. Go a step further. In my most clear-sighted moments not only
do I not think myself a nice man, but I know that I am a very nasty one. I
can look at some of the things I have done with horror and loathing. So
apparently I am allowed to loathe and hate some of the things my enemies do.
Now that I come to think of it, I remember Christian teachers telling me
long ago that I must hate a bad man's actions, but not hate the bad man: or,
as they would say, hate the sin but not the sinner.

For a long time I used to think this a silly, straw-splitting
distinction: how could you hate what a man did and not hate the man? But
years later it occurred to me that there was one man to whom I had been
doing this all my life--namely myself. However much I might dislike my own
cowardice or conceit or greed, I went on loving myself. There had never been
the slightest difficulty about it. In fact the very reason why I hated the
things was that I loved the man. Just because I loved myself, I was sorry to
find that I was the sort of man who did those things. Consequently,
Christianity does not want us to reduce by one atom the hatred we feel for
cruelty and treachery. We ought to hate them. Not one word of what we have
said about them needs to be unsaid. But it does want us to hate them in the
same way in which we hate things in ourselves: being sorry that the man
should have done such things, and hoping, if it is anyway possible, that
somehow, sometime, somewhere, he can be cured and made human again...

I admit that this means loving people who have nothing lovable about
them. But then, has oneself anything lovable about it? You love it simply
because it is yourself. God intends us to love all selves in the same way
and for the same reason: but He has given us the sum ready worked out on our
own case to show us how it works. We have then to go on and apply the rule
to all the other selves. Perhaps it makes it easier if we remember that that
is how He loves us. Not for any nice, attractive qualities we think we have,
but just because we are the things called selves."

--from "Forgiveness," Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

St. George's Day


For dragons small, and dragons feathery;
For dragons large, and dragons leathery;
Killed on foot or on a horse,
Killed with lances or with swords;
For dragons with beaks or lion's jaws,
With eagle's talons or padded paws;
For dragons smooth or scaly rough;
We thank thee, Lord, we've had enough.

--BTB, April 23, 2013.

Two Fantasy Authors' Lives: A Twosday Twofer

Apostle of Letters: A Critical Evaluation of the Life and Works of Lin Carter (2006), Edited by Stephen J. Servello, WildCat Books. 193pp.
Lin Carter (born Linwood Vrooman Carter in 1933; died 1988) will perhaps be best remembered for three things, in increasing order of importance: his own fantasy books, such as the Lemurian cycle; his editing and additions (with L. Sprague de Camp) to Robert E. Howard's Conan stories; and his editorship of and critical writings for the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series. Carter's style of sword-and-sorcery has fallen out of favor, perhaps to be enjoyed mainly for its nostalgia value by those who read it as teens. His work on Conan, while doing much to keep Howard's name and fame alive during difficult times, is presently seen by many purists and critics as mere accretions to be cleared from the original writings. His own "critical" writings on Tolkien and Lovecraft have become outdated since a vast wealth of resources, unpublished at the time, are now available. But Carter is fondly remembered today by many writers in the fantasy vein as someone who introduced them to obscure historical gems of the imagination through the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series.

And it is here, I think, that Lin Carter's importance lies. He was an enthusiast, an amateur, an ascended fanboy. He was no scholar of the books he talked about: he was a lover of them, and he wanted to pass on what he loved about them to others. At a time when Fantasy was in its own despised ghetto of literature he showed there was a rich history of great names and wondrous works behind it all, and he scraped together every scrap of knowledge he could get to share with others and fan that flame until it burned clear again. His own novels were entertainments and his style usually a pastiche of writers like Carter and Lovecraft and E. R. Burroughs, but he had a high vision that occasionally (as in his unfinished Khymyrium stories) lifted itself into the song of his own voice.

This book of 17 essays and interviews mostly covers aspects of his work, and relatively little of his life. I came away wanting to know more about the man personally. But maybe that's as it should be. It seems to me that for Lin Carter his work was his life, and he loved it.

H. P. Lovecraft: A Life (1996), by S. T. Joshi, Necronomicon Press.
This monumental volume (708 pages, including notes) is an incredible achievement by Joshi, and an amazing balancing act. I will not pretend I have read every page of it (I am still in that enjoyable process), but what I have read impresses me no end. In telling the story of H. P. Lovecraft, Joshi not only tells what Lovecraft did and what happened to him, but the historical context in which it occurred. The vastly different state of science, the prevailing social theories, the basic standards of living of the times, are touched on to explain the context of HPL's life and conduct. Lovecraft's own works are examined mainly as facts; when he wrote them, what influenced them, how he sold them and for how much, and the effect their publication had on him. Joshi as an author seldom intrudes or makes a judgmental statement. Facts are presented as facts; any opinions tend to be Lovecraft's own or his contemporaries, and these are cited simply as to the fact that they were made.

This makes it sound like the book is dry or dull reading. It is not. It is a superb orchestration, the theme being Lovecraft's life, and his family, his times, the city he grew up in, his friends, his wife, his writing, are all strands of music that swell and fade and intermingle in ever-developing chords, and all made by simple touches on the keys that are the facts.

In reading this book I seem to see Lovecraft more clearly than ever before, as if Joshi were painstakingly cleaning and restoring an old portrait darkened by the years, separating the authorial persona from the person. Insights into HPL's beliefs, his humor, and his habits have already startled and enlightened me. I can hardly wait to continue the book, although it leads to every life's sad end. But then, unlike real life, one can always start a written life again at the beginning, and I am sure that this is only the first of many readings of this book that I would like to have.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Two "Pogo" Collections: A Twosday Twofer

I've been interested in Pogo since I was "a shirt-tail tad" myself, when in 1969 the Chuck Jones-produced "The Pogo Special Birthday Special" came out. It was promoted at that time with toys and plastic cups as premiums in Procter & Gamble soap products, and we got several of these figures (which the cartoonist and Pogo creator Walt Kelley designed himself), such as Pogo and Howland Owl and Churchy La Femme the Turtle. Later we got one of Porkypine, that was also much treasured. That was the extent of my contact with Kelly's work, however, as our newspaper didn't carry the strip, and Kelly himself passed away soon after and Pogo was discontinued. Only years later when we were allowed into the grown-up section of our local library did we find some volumes of collected Kelly, and they were still so popular it was hard to find a volume that wasn't already checked out. After decades of chasing the fugitive marsupial through used book stores and Fireside omnibuses, we are at last being presented with collections of the complete syndicated comic strips, to be published in twelve uniform volumes, each book consisting of two years of Pogo, Albert, and the other "swamp critters."

Pogo Vol. I: Through the Wild Blue Wonder and Pogo Vol II: Bona Fide Balderdash are the numbers that have been released so far. They are beautifully designed, and large enough (almost a foot long and ten inches high, with four strips to a page) to give each strip the space one needs to appreciate the artistry of Kelly's line, apparent to the original readers before newspapers shrank the size of comics, losing the opportunity for art as well as wit. The colored Sunday funnies (which followed separate stories or one-offs from the dailies) are reproduced in their full glorious spectrum. Each book has a table of contents summarizing the story-lines for easy location and an appendix of annotations ("Swamp Talk," by R. C. Harvey) to explain literary and historical allusions that might be obscure to modern readers.

Forewords, Introductions, and Editor's Notes give much information on Walt Kelly himself and the development of Pogo. We're told how Kelly was employed at and then left the Disney Studios after working on Dumbo, Pinocchio, and Fantasia; how he testified before Congress on behalf of comic books; how after years of developing Pogo he got it syndicated in 1949; how he fought for the copyright to his own work and won it; of his tireless promotion of the strip (including the "I Go Pogo" presidential campaign button); of the growing political satire in the strip in its latter years, causing some newspapers to move it to the editorial page; of his support for environmental responsibility and his famous slogan "We Have Met The Enemy And He Is Us." But we are also told more personal details: his gusto for life, expressed in his enjoyment of whiskey, cigars, and card games; the personal tragedy of the loss of his daughter Kathryn Barbara before her first birthday (memorialized in the strip each year with a bug with a birthday cake, searching for the little girl); the diabetes that plagued him later in life and led to the amputation of his leg; and the enormous sense of humor and the love that sustained him through everything.

As for Pogo itself, it is hard to explain its charm to anyone who hasn't read it. Pogo Possum is the eponymous hero, living in a fictionalized version of the Okefenokee Swamp, which has all the virtues and failings of any small-town backwater. Pogo is friendly, easy-going, and clear-sighted; his closest friends are Albert, a loud, hungry, egotistical, but warm-hearted alligator, and Porkypine, a prickly curmudgeon whose caustic outside protects a sensitive core. They usually have to deal with the enthusiasms and misapprehensions of the likes of Howland Owl (self-appointed "scienterrific" type) and his sometime-stooge Churchy, the probing of the sanctimonious Deacon Mushrat, and the romantic entanglements of Miss Mam'zelle Hepzibah, a glamorous French skunk. But the swamp is also stirred up by the frequent passage of various nomads like P. T. Bridgeport the showboating bear and Seminole Sam the flim-flam salesman fox, or incursions from Okefenokee's darker regions like the lynch-happy ever-hungry Wiley Katt. The strip is full of simple and not-so-simple humor, from the most hilarious cartoony gags to some subtle, even frightening, satire. But the sun outshines the shadows, and the decent usually triumph, often because of the stupid and divisive nature of the bad themselves, rather than any particular virtue of their own. But Pogo is always a sane and humane voice speaking out in the middle of any mania that might grip the swamp, and acts as the conscience for those who can easily be led astray.

But don't let me leave you with the impression that Pogo is preachy. It is first, and above all, funny (and beautiful, too); with the kind of over-all humor you can't explain, the kind you try to explain by quoting, and then can never stop, and still can't give the proper idea of because it is divorced from Kelly's expressive art. It has to be experienced to be appreciated; go find some samples and give it a try. Take several jumps at it if you have to. Once you get in and get a feel for it, you could develop a new enthusiasm for life, and then really appreciate what Fantagraphics Books is doing for us Pogophiles in these new reprints.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

The Melancholy of Mrs. Fisher

"All my dead friends don't seem worth reading tonight. They always say the same things. Good things, but always the same. They were...They are great; but they have a terrible disadvantage. They're all dead. I'm tired of the dead. I want the living." --Mrs. Fisher (Joan Plowright), Enchanted April, 1991.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Two "Inklings" Novels: A Twosday Twofer

It was perhaps inevitable with the growing awareness of the Inklings in the early twenty-first century (due largely in part to the popular films made from the works of J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis) that this circle of friends and writers would begin to appear in works of fiction themselves. An early effort I remember reading was Here, There Be Dragons (2006) by James A. Owen, published by Simon and Schuster. This was the first volume in his fantasy series The Chronicles of the Imaginarium Geographica, which has since swollen to at least four other titles. These books take the facts of the names and simple existence of Tolkien, Lewis, and Charles Williams and use them as a springboard for meandering imaginary adventures, revealing very little knowledge or insight into the actual lives or personalities of the people thus utilized. Creative use of the Inklings "mythos" has entered a new stage, however, with the publication of two novels by Ignatius Press.
Looking For The King (2010) by David C. Downing, takes place in Great Britain early in World War Two, before the United States has joined the conflict. Two Americans (James McCord, a doctoral student researching Arthurian sites, and Laura Hartman, a young woman ostensibly visiting her aunt but actually investigating a series of disturbing recurring dreams) cross paths and join forces when it seems that their goals have become one: to recover a mystical item from Arthurian legend before hostile forces can sieze it and use its power for evil. Aided by the scholarly and spiritual insights of C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, and Charles Williams, the pair follow the clues, uncovering the neglected history and forgotten stories of "Logres," the other side of England. But greedy and powerful men haunt the quest, making it ever more urgent for James and Laura to unravel the riddle and find the sleeping king of Laura's dream.

Dr. Downing's novel is a "romance thriller," something in the same nature, in fact, of Charles Williams' novels, with hints of Lewis' own most Williamsian novel, That Hideous Strength: James and Laura are rather like Lewis' couple Mark and Jane Studdock, with the men being skeptical and the women intuitive. The reproduction of the Inklings' persons and opinions in this novel are accurate; indeed, they can be, if anything, too painstakingly reproduced, with their conversations sometimes reading (to a person familiar with the source materials) like a Favorite Quotations Page. Downing, a Professor of English, even goes so far as to have an appendix citing where and from which works he acquired them. But this does not greatly detract from the tale, which is exciting and full of physical (and metaphysical) menace: a quest that ultimately culminates in discovery, enlightenment, and love.
Toward The Gleam (2011) by T. M. Doran is a different type of story altogether. Instead of a re-creation of an actual milieu, it is rather like one of Lewis' "supposals": suppose that Tolkien's literary device of translating and publishing a lost work from an ancient world were literally real. Suppose that Tolkien adopted the pseudonym "John Hill" to investigate the legitimacy of this "Atlantean" tale. Suppose his investigations drew the attentions of Adler Alembert, an international Napoleon of Crime who believes the ancient but advanced knowledge of "Atlantis" will grant him incredible power. Can "John Hill" translate the unknown runes, keep Alembert and his agents at bay, protect his family, and come to terms with his obsession with his own "precious" object?

This book owes much to the detective mystery, but it is so much more. "John Hill" is confronted with the prevailing philosophies of nihilism and utilitarianism that grind away at the soul, often in the persons of Adler and his agents who seek to woo "John" (with his valuable knowledge) into their cause. It is the love of his wife "E.M.", his faith, and the help of his friends Jack and Owen (C. S. Lewis and Owen Barfield, "the forgotten Inkling"; being pre-WWII there is no Charles Williams yet) that keep him on track. There is also the example of the mysterious story he is translating, which seems to be a spiritual tonic and an aid against precisely the moral temptations he faces. This tale is referred to only in tantalizing allusions (some characters mentioned are the Hero, the Necromancer, the Burglar, the Grey Pilgrim), and part of the fun is identifying elements from Tolkien's work. Is the box the book is kept in made of mithril? Was a pteranodon recreated by the Necromancer with Jurassic-Park-like engineering? In the end "John Hill" experiences a strange saving grace that would not be unfamiliar to readers of Tolkien's published story.

I was hesitant for a while about reading these books, wondering (in light of past experience) whether they would be true to their origins. But I found them to be engaging entertainments, and indeed read both in three days. If I had to recommend you read only one, I would say try Toward The Gleam first; I deem it the more creative and exciting work. But I couldn't advise a better follow up than Looking For The King, if that left you hungry for more in the genre.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Thursday, April 4, 2013


"No use of a growl, a whoop, a roar, in the presence of that beast! Vast, red-golden, huge tail coiled, limbs sprawled over his treasure-hoard, eyes not firey but cold as the memory of family deaths. Vanishing away across invisible floors, there were things of gold, gems, jewels, silver vessels the color of blood in the undulant, dragon-red light. Arching over him the ceiling and upper walls of his cave were alive with bats. The color of his sharp scales darkened and brightened as the dragon inhaled and exhaled slowly, drawing new air across his vast internal furnace; his razor-sharp tusks gleamed and glinted as if they too, like the mountains beneath him, were formed of precious stones and metals." --from Grendel, by John Gardner.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

A Few Words From Mrs. Beard

"If there's one thing I've learned in life, it's that learning things never taught me nothing." --Yellowbeard, 1983.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013