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THE HICKSVILLE HIT PARADE

Stuff we've been enjoying lately in Hicksville:

Comics:

Louis Riel by Chester Brown (Drawn & Quarterly) My favourite comic book at the moment - bar none.  Chester's doing something incredibly interesting in this book, in terms of narrative and tone and art.   Imagine Kirby crossed with Harold Gray crossed with Picasso's 'neo-classical' work from the 30s & 40s and you get some idea of how it looks.  But Chester's also leached any sense of melodrama out of the story and art - so that everything is very still and dry.  It's fascinating.  Chester is ALWAYS interesting and inspiring, but for my money, this is his best work to date.

 

Anything at all by Ron Rege Jr. or Ben Katchor or Joe SaccoThough I'm still waiting on the latest books by all these three (along with Chris Ware's Jimmy Corrigan book), I know they will change my life again (as all their stuff does).  I hear David Mazzuchelli is going to release a new graphic novel from Pantheon soon, too, which will no doubt jolt the planet off its axis a few degrees or so.  Others I always hanker for new work by include Debbie Dreschler, Megan Kelso, Carrie Golus, etc etc...

 

Goodbye Chunky Rice, by Craig Thompson (Top Shelf). I’ve already had my opinion of this one plastered on the back of the book, but just to reiterate: this is a beautiful book and a remarkable debut; it brought me to tears.  I hear he's got a new book soon from Top Shelf - and I've also heard it's beautiful...

 

Kissers, by James Kochalka (Highwater Books). I’m such a big James Kochalka fan I love almost everything he brings out and this is one of his finest books yet. Come to think of it, 1999 was a good year for the Superstar, what with The Horrible Truth About Comics and The Perfect Planet, too. In 2000 we've also had the lovely Jeremy & Peanut Butter, which is a favourite of my 5-year old son and snippets of James' comic strip diary, which I really enjoyed. I like James' stuff for the same reason I like Chunky Rice - it’s not only superbly crafted (ho ho ho); it also has potent and lyrical things to say about life.

 

Silly Daddy: A Death in the Family, by Joe Chiappetta (Joe Chiappetta). Silly Daddy is still one of my favourite comic books ever and I’ve missed it since it petered out in 1999 (soon after Joe became involved in the Christian church - though he's since done some religious comics, which I've just ordered and am eagerly awaiting - I'll let you know what I think when they arrive). I truly believe Joe is one of the most consistently interesting, surprising and challenging cartoonists to have emerged in America during the 1990s - and again, he always has something intelligent and heartfelt to say. This collection is very good, but I hope we’ll see more of the comic soon; Joe is one of the few people still capable of making the newsprint-pamphlet into a unique and beautiful art object.

 

Promethea, Top Ten & Tom Strong by Alan Moore et al (America’s Best Comics) In an interview a few years after The Watchmen, Alan Moore apologised for what he had unleashed on the American comics industry. In trying to kill off the superhero genre once and for all, he groaned, he had instead spawned a nasty, cynical and (worst of all) pretentious new strain of the same genre. But it’s okay now; Moore has found the path to redemption and I, for one, forgive him; he’s fixing what he broke.

 

From Hell by Alan Moore & Eddie Campbell (Eddie Campbell Comics, via Top Shelf)  As if saving mainstream comics ain't enough, Moore has also finished his biggest and best graphic novel to date, which owes a huge amount of its artistic success to Campbell's intense, brooding, manic penwork.  A masterpiece of collaboration and a deeply disturbing book.  God damn, Moore is good...

 

Ethel and Ernest by Raymond Briggs (Jonathan Cape/Pantheon)  If I had seen this before compiling the above list, I'd have definitely included it.   It's another Briggs masterpiece.  At first it seems nothing special, but the cumulative effect is extraordinarily powerful and I keep thinking back to brief incidents and images which reveal their complexity slowly and in retrospect.

 

Finder trade paperback by Carla Speed McNeill (Lightspeed PressVery good science fantasy (sort of).  Make sure you read the endnotes, though; much of the story doesn't make sense without them. 

 

Deadenders by Ed Brubaker & Warren Pleece (Vertigo)  One of the great tragedies of the current industry is that a title like this can fold after 16 issues, when so much junk thrives...

 

Buz Sawyer by Roy Crane (as appearing in Comic Revue magazine)

Sock Monkey by Tony Millionaire (Dark Horse) 

Top Shelf on Parade edited by Brett Warnock (Top Shelf)

The New Gods, The Forever People trade paperbacks by Jack Kirby (DC Comics)

Heavy Liquid by Paul Pope (Vertigo)  Actually, the recent THB6 series is much better, but this is still fun.

Flash Gordon Sunday Strips (vol.4) by Alex Raymond (Kitchen Sink)

Wishbone by Adam Jamieson (Cataract)

 

Oh, but there are so many comics and so little time...

Books:

Comic Strips and Consumer Culture by Ian Gordon (Smithsonian)   A fascinating account of the relationship between comic strips and the development of a consumer culture in America in the first half of this century.  Gordon argues that comics were both a product and promoter of that culture and that they contributed significantly to the creation of the commodity as a brand (or personality) as well as to the growth of the visual mass media in general.

 

Sight Unseen by Georgina Kleege (Yale University Press) An extraordinary memoir of blindness by a novelist who has experienced macular degeneration since her childhood, but who has only recently begun describing herself as blind (rather than 'sight impaired' etc).  A thought-provoking and fascinating exploration of the phenomenology, cultural readings and social contexts of blindness and sight. 

 

The Art of Jack Kirby by Ray Wyman Jr and Catherine Hohlfield (Blue Rose)  A biography of the King, which is beautifully illustrated but short on solid biography.  Lists of career trivia are favoured over a genuine attempt to explore the texture of his life (apart from a couple of ill-conceived and thoroughly unconvincing 'docu-drama' narratives of moments from his childhood and youth).  

Typical for me was the way several paragraphs describing which stories were published in what month would be followed by a few bland sentences mentioning the fact that he got married or had another child or that his brother died.  Even his wartime experiences were only briefly glossed over, although in interviews with others who knew Kirby, tantalising anecdotes have been alluded to. 

In short, a hagiography by fans, rather than a serious biography.  Still, it's all we've got to date, so I guess I shouldn't complain.  I just can't help but wonder if we'll ever get a really solid biography of Kirby, Crumb, Herriman or any of the other extraordinary characters in the history of comics...

 

Albert Speer: His Battle with Truth by Gitta SerenyThe best thing I've ever read about the Holocaust and Nazi Germany.  And for that matter about the interface between public, personal and political morality.  I read this nearly a year ago now and it still sits in the back of my mind percolating and adding new thoughts and insights to my brain.  Speer was Hitler's architect and one of his chief ministers and closest friends.  At the Nuremburg trial, he was the one defendant who seemed genuinely remorseful and consequently escaped the noose.  After 25 years in Spandau he was released to a life of guilt, an apparently genuine quest for redemption and - perhaps most significantly - denial. 

The book systematically dissects Speer as a psychological, political and moral individual, seeking to get to the heart of how an apparently decent person could become so complicit in such profound evil and what that process tells us about morality and society.  Sereny beautifully describes the "twilight between knowing and unknowing" which Speer (and millions of others) found convenient to inhabit - and encourages us to apply this insight to the whole issue of public and personal morality. 

Although Speer becomes a metaphor for the whole German polis (if not the world polis), Sereny never allows the metaphor to obliterate or deflect from the concrete reality of his individual complexities or the realities of Nazi Germany and the Holocaust.  Like all the finest writing, metaphor is something that emerges from actual contingent lives and realities (unlike the more self-conscious Magical Realist style which is all too common these days, in which contingencies are simply manifestations of metaphor). 

Really an extraordinarily complex and powerful book.  And a model of biographical, journalistic and historical writing.  And of ethical writing.  Dammit, of writing, full stop.  Honestly, this is one of the best books I've ever read - and one of the most important works of historical journalism this century.  It's also an utterly compelling read.  As Inga Glendinnen says (see below): if you only read one book about the Holocaust, read this one.

 

Reading the Holocaust by Inga GlendinnenThis is a fascinating book.   The author is a historian whose area of specialisation is actually pre-Columbian America.  This is her attempt to try and understand the Holocaust - or perhaps more accurately, to try to explore how we try and understand it.  She looks at how people have written about it in historiography, fiction, poetry and on film.  She gently but firmly picks her way through the mythologies - her goal always to grasp the historical fact of what happened, how and why. 

She is understanding but ultimately damning of our tendency to be paralysed in the face of the horror, reverting to terms like "evil," "inhuman," "unique" etc in describing the Holocaust.   As she points out, what makes it so necessary to study these terrible events is that they are utterly "human" and unfortunately not very "unique" at all.  That the processes that led to the industrialised slaughter of millions of people in a modern, industrialised Western nation are present all around us and are repeated all too often throughout history does not allow us the luxury of consigning them to some realm beyond comprehension.  The Holocaust was first and foremost a social phenomenon.  This book is an excellent contribution to understanding it.

 

Selling Hitler by Robert HarrisYou could almost call this light relief after the last two, but although enormously entertaining, it does expose a frightening fascination with the cult of Hitler that still permeates our culture.  It's an account of the Hitler Diaries scam that captured the headlines back in the early eighties.  Harris doesn't quite have the depth to make this into a really significant book (which it could have been in the right hands), but it's still a good read.  I followed this with a book about the Holocaust Denial movement (Denying the Holocaust - I forget the author), which really was disturbing.  The author was a little too quick to blame post-modernism for the success of the Deniers, but she still had some very good analysis of the intellectual processes which serve to erode our sense of social morality and critical thinking.

 

Positively George Street by Matthew Bannister (Reed)Matthew was a member of the Sneaky Feelings (a Dunedin band ca. 1980-1990) who recorded one classic Flying Nun album (Send You), which was a big part of the soundtrack to my life in the mid-eighties and a number of later albums which I now want to go out and get.  Although they were one of the earliest Flying Nun bands to make a splash (after the Clean), the Sneakies never quite fit in with the self-consciously counter-culture aesthetic the label cultivated.  There seems to be no love lost between Matthew and Chris Knox (whom Matthew describes as a kind of Anti-Pop purist), for example. 

This book, then, is Matthew's memoir of being young and in a band - part of the 'Dunedin Scene' in the eighties.  Evocative of the whole experience, intelligent and opinionated about the NZ music scene, insightful in his analysis of counter- and sub-cultures and... well, entertaining.  A satifsying read for anyone interested in the so-called 'Dunedin sound' or in music full stop.  Made me drag out my old copy of Send You and Hallelujah All the Way Home (by the Verlaines, who also feature prominently) all over again.

Music:

Some current high rotation albums:

Portraits: a New Albion Sampler by variousMy favourite anthology of contemporary classical music from a wonderful label (New Albion).  Somei Satoh, Paul Dresher, Ingram Marshall, John Adams, Daniel Lentz, Stephen Scott. What more do you want?

Other current favourites include: Arvo Part, Somei Satoh, John Tavener, Giya Kancheli, John Adams, John Cage (Four Walls), Morton Feldman, Astor Piazzolla...

Talking Timbuktu Ali Farka Toure & Ry Cooder.   Yeah, it won an Emmy etc etc, but it really is a wonderful album.  As are Toure's Radio Mali and Niafunke.  Malian music is king - I've had a tape of traditional Malian courtly music for years which my Dad made me - don't know what the original album was, but it's been one of my favourite albums since.

Live 1966: the 'Royal Albert Hall' concert by Bob Dylan. The year I was born and the guy I was named after (along with Mr. Thomas), so naturally I'm interested.  Actually, I kind of grew up on Dylan, along with everything else from Coltrane and Stevie Wonder to the Doors and Stockhausen (etc etc).  And this is a very very good album.  One cd is the acoustic solo set (audience applauds appreciatively), the other is the electric set (audience yells abuse and slow claps during the guitar breaks).   Both are Dylan at his best.  This is far and away my favourite of his albums.

nyc ghosts & flowers and Goo and Dirty and Washing Machine & A Thousand Leaves by Sonic Youth.   Perfect car stereo stuff.  And of course deadline rush music.

Everything by StereolabMy current favourite band, thanks to Timothy Kidd, who loaned me some and changed my soul for ever.  Get all their albums - they're unbelievably good.

Everything by Beck I've been kicking myself ever since he played here and I missed it.  Word is it was the concert of the year.

Everything by Bjork, but especially the remix albums (Telegraph etc).  Actually, she's sometimes erratic (Homogenic had some duds as well as some treasures, like the gorgeous Unravel), but I confess I'm a shameless fanboy.   Especially since I discovered MP3s and started finding such wonderful bootleg concert recordings as her doing Gotham City Lullabye (which I'm sure is an old Meredith Monk piece...). 

Fat Boy Slim When this came out, my 4-year old boy loved it.   "Check it OUT NOW!  The funk soul brother!" he would chant in the car...

Bueno Vista Social Club  Can't go too wrong with Cuban jazz...  Well, you can, I guess, but mostly it's irresistable.   Not too good for drawing to, though (can't sit still).  Perfect for doing the dishes.  The pianist on Bueno Vista - Ruben Gonzalez - has a few solo albums available (some reissues of old stuff), which are if anything even better...

Homage to Piazzolla. Kremer on violin, etc etc.  This stuff cooks.

The Prisoner's Song and the Bartok album by Muszikas  Muszikas are a Hungarian band - very nice mixture of gypsy and central european rhythms and sounds.  They sit next to the spanish Radio Tarifa on my shelf (another great group).  

American Elegies, conducted by John Adams.   Adams, Ives and more - wonderful wonderful album.

Dracula by Philip Glass His best in years - this is Glass's sound track for the original Dracula silent movie.  Rather like Bill Frissell's sound track to Buster Keaton.  Only different, of course...

Do What You Want by Garageland. Another Flying Nun band.   Glorious late-90s NZ pop.  One song in particular (Trashcan: "In the middle of the ocean, there are trash cans of devotion / Giant skips of dedication" etc) is very James Kochalka (that's a good thing).   Their first album Last Exit to Garageland was also wonderful.

Movies:

Don't get out much these days (small children, live a long drive from the cinemas), but once in a while we make it to something.   And sometimes we catch a video.  But in the last year or two I have managed to see:

Almost Famous.  This is great - like reading a funny, sweet, basically naive alternative comic.  Haven't had this much fun at the movies in ages...

Genghis Blues.   A blind American blues musician travels to Tuva (Outer Mongolia) to compete in the annual Throat Singing festival.  It's good - not great on the Tuvan stuff (a bit too Lonely Planet for my taste; too much gee wow! and not enough getting beneath the surface), but quite complex on the central character's blindness.  Didn't like some of the editing decisions, but overall well worth seeing.  Great music, too, of course.

Cube. Don't see it.  It's awful.  Unless you like watching people getting diced - and then anxiously waiting for the next grisly slaughter.  It'll give you nightmares, honestly.  Not my scene.  This is one of only a couple of movies I can ever remember walking out of (and I gave it an hour)...

Saving Private Ryan. Yes, you can tell I don't get out much; honestly, to me this seems recent.  Anyway, I agreed with what everyone says: the first 30 minutes are worth forcing yourself to experience (preferably on the big screen).  After that it gradually turns into a turgidly cliched war movie with good special effects.  Having said all that, I did cry all the way home, so...

Schindler's List.   Got the video out (finally) and was pleasantly surprised.  Armistad was so god-awful I was expecting this to be really dire, but it wasn't.  Saw it just after reading Sereny's book about Speer (see above) and lots of other stuff on the Holocaust, so I was primed up.  But it actually managed to add new thoughts about it; it's really a complicated examination of how we are (or fail to be) moral in the face of "the banality of evil."  So - with the exception of a few moments - I would heartily recommend this.  Much to my surprise.

A Bug's Life.   My son loved it and so did I.  Ditto Toy Story 2...

Peter Pan (the old Disney version).  I had no idea this was so good!   It's one of my top ten films of all time at the moment.  Really!  It's fun, gorgeous, sexy, complex and multi-layered.  Actually, I've been rediscovering all the old Disney classics and wow!  Snow White is great, too.  What luscious animation!

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.   Okay, so all I ever watch these days is kid's videos.  It's true.  You got a problem with that?  This is another classic (screenplay co-written by Roald Dahl and it shows), full of strange details that suit adults even better than kids (like the weird bondage thing going on with the Duke and Duchess)...

TV:

The Simpsons (of course).  What else?   Still the best thing on TV, bar none.  Futurama is good too, though it's good in the same way the Simpsons was when it first started, so give it time...

King of the Hill  Underrated, in my humble opinion.  I really like it (and so does my wife).

BBC World Service  If only all TV was like this (mind you, then we probably wouldn't have the Simpsons...)

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