Archive for September, 2014

http://www.achewood.com/

Ach1

2001, and using the web Chris Onstad opened up the flipped world of Achewood to us.

Why ‘flipped’? Well, Achewood, he explains, is the underground version of the city above. Problem is, the city above is fictional. Chris Onstad is really into this, he uses an address from the fictional suburb as his own.

Who lives there? They are stuffed toys, toy robots, pets. But they are all full characters, complete with detailed and interrelating back-stories.
This is his premise, and from this he extrapolates wonderful absurd, funny, often poignant adventures and events. He interrupts stories to explore side events, adventures, before resuming the earlier arc.
One extra ingredient to the story lines is an interest in recipes, cooking. All adds to the mix.

Chris Onstad kept the comic strips going until about 2010. In 2011 he announced an indefinite hiatus. It lasted a couple of months at most.
Back on track but favouring a more realistic method of writing, the adventures are retailed on a more occasional basis, regular but with breathing space.

Achewood takes the form of downloadable ebooks/comics, and online strips. Lately he has turned his attention to regular film medium. He has constructed a whole merchandise arena for Achewood products.
Hard copy books are also available. Take, for instance:

THE GREAT OUTDOOR FIGHT (Dark Horse Books, 2008)

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‘Three Days, Three Acres, Three Thousand Men’.

He touts the Fight as a regular event, based in Bakersfield, Calif. It is a last man standing competition.
It also takes off expertly ultra-macho posturing, the he-man industry, Iron John idealisations.

The participants, three thousand strong, slug it out. Achewood’s Ray Smuckles, described as a ‘thong-clad, anthropomorphic cat’, discovers his father was a previous champion. Typical lacunae in the story line is when his mother calls to see him – she is a prim, be-eye-glassed matron. But her marriage was a marriage of passion; her husband used to take her out to the lowest, dingiest bars and challenge all comers, but make her stand outside to protect her sensibilities….
Ray Smuckles enters the competition. But competitors have to prove they have previous ‘form’. He ‘acquires’ this, and so enters the arena, along with best buddy Roast Beef.

And what of buddy Roast Beef? There is another world of surprise and unexpected gifts all over again!

It is not the straight story line we read Achewood for – Onstad goes for the absurd, the ‘flat visual punch-line’ – but for the twists and turns, the sights and scenes along the way. He plays with stereotypes: here are two English guys, one’s a blogger commentating on the Fight; and the way Onstad twists the language to suggest a kind of English accent is hugely entertaining. Likewise the Russian/Soviet robot’s speech patterns.

Nothing is straight-forward in Achewood.

And we have WORST SONG, PLAYED ON UGLIEST GUITAR  (Dark Horse Books, 2009)

Complete with detailed over and under maps of Achewood territory, and histories of Achewood.
Here we have speech bubbles but also on occasion under commentary. In A Terrible Thanksgiving he gives us a twist of a tale that ends in a moral and show-stopper dance-routine.

In here we also have Before Achewood – The Early Experiments. It was, he writes: ‘… a vehicle for taking the day’s odd workplace thoughts or memorable lines and stuffing them into word balloons above stock drawings.’ It is more than that, of course – it is how all the pieces work together: format, drawings, pauses, expressions, and the intonations we pick up and decipher from context and pre-formats.

In this book he gives us backgrounds – to place, character, but also to his influences and travelling companions. He references names of other cartoonists; it is for the reader to follow up as need be because as Onstad wrote when readers wrote in about the fate of his character Scrambles: ‘(I never wrote them back,) because I don’t care.’
The irony is, of course: here is Scrambles reproduced again.

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MARK BEYER – COMIC BOOKS

Posted: September 20, 2014 in Chat
Tags: , ,

Comic writing has come a long way in such a short time. Ten years or so ago we had the big spectacle of Harvey Pekar’s AMERICAN SPLENDOUR books, and his CANCER YEAR. Both adopted successfully to film.

We had Daniel Clowes’ GHOST WORLD, another successful film based on his comic strips.

Harvey is no longer with us. He had the good fortune of knowing Robert Crumb, before Crumb became a comic writer. The connection proved good for Pekar.

Mark Beyer, though has a wholly innovative technique, and customary bleak story lines.
I dug out my copy of AMY AND JORDAN for this write-up – all the strips are black and white! I remembered colour! His AGONY is colour – and the colours are always strong washes and planes of colour. The images are so strong, though, they colour themselves in memory.

MBeyer

Mark Beyer grew up in Pennsylvania, with a troubled childhood, by all accounts. He had always drawn and illustrated but it really took off in his later teens.
First of all he self published – A DISTURBING EVENING and OTHER STORIES, 1978.
And then his breakthrough DEAD STORIES, 1982

From there he has published successfully AGONY, 1987

AMY AND JORDAN, 1993 and 1996

WE’RE DEPRESSED, 1999

And then the big AMY AND JORDAN, 2004.

What is it about his work that is so interesting?
Wiki cites a childlike, geometric drawing style, coupled with themes of disaster and dismemberment, death and humiliation. Typical angst, then.

What is really innovative of his work is his use of panels. Every comic strip is composed of panels to be drawn in, and a gutter between. Manipulation of space here is a key to pace, and tension: a wider gutter, or a wider panel between two regular ones, adds as much to the storyline as the text.

Mark Beyer has experimented with panels so well it is difficult to come back from.
Why must a panel be a rectangle or square? So he tried spherical panels. He tried triangular panels; he even drew panels that defy geometrical description.

MBeyer1

It is also a basic truism that the more complex the drawing, whether background, or figures, both the slower the read, the more complex the experience.
So Mark Beyer drew simple figures – yes, but complicated with in-filling and design. He still used voice bubbles within the panels. His characters are shown from odd angles, perspectives; their bodies are pliable, plastic, he drapes them, morphes them, he slews their bodies like a Chagall. They turn into skeletons but keep their characters. They do terrible things.

MBeyer2

So what’s with the bleakness and misery? Amy wakes to find a huge bug-like creature standing on her bed. It explained it was an ancient demi-god; its abdomen consisted of a series of drawers where she could learn all the secrets of the world discovered over millennia. So, like a memory-palace, then? She was too taken up with discovering a bug on her bed, though, she squashed it.

What works here, is the drawing style, awkward it may be but carries its own logic and authority, and the off-setting of theme by innovative use of unusual panels.

Mark Beyer is using the form to transgress – it is our disturbance he is manipulating: he has stepped over the line and altered our perception.
Comics do that anyway: we see horrors and wonders that cannot possibly exist, and we accept them.

– Scott McCloud’s book UNDERSTANDING COMICS: The Invisible Art (William Morrow/HarperCollins 1993) is excellent background reading on the art of comics.

W-E-Henley1

W E Henley is mostly known as one of a group of writers: poets of the 1890s. Straight-away we have notions of decadence, absinthe, Oscar Wilde, of Aubrey Beardsley, of Art for Arts’ sake.
Henley was at his best as a writer of particulars, of London; not so much the opium fume of decadence’s London Particular, but its populace, impressions of place.

He is now mostly known for his poem INVICTUS, as quoted by Barack Obama, but most notably by Nelson Mandela on Robbin Island:

…………………………………………
I am the master of my fate;
I am the captain of my soul.

The point here is that Henley was not just parroting some Latin Stoic from centuries ago, but knew what he was writing about.
At the age of twelve Henley was diagnosed with TB; three years’ later he lost his left leg below the knee. This was also the time of his father’s death, which brought the creditors knocking.

William Ernest Henley was born in 1849, in Gloucester. He died in London, 1903. As you can guess from the dates TB took its toll on his health. There was another period of hospitalisation as his right foot was marked for amputation as well; Henley fought back: he knew of a surgeon etc. The foot was saved, but the outcome uneven. Analgesia and anesthetics involved employed ether by this period, and the role of bacteria in disease was making great strides. Hospitalisation was in Edinburgh; from there he sent his writing off and came to the attention of a thriving writing community.

From this period, and working as a journalist then editor in London, come a remarkable series of poems, portraits of hospital staff: In Hospital, published in 1875.

He became an intimate of many writers of the period, and reciprocal acknowledgement of the debt of friendship, to use a phrase, can be found in Robert Louis Stevenson using Henley for the model for Long John Silver in Treasure Island. Large of frame, strong personality, booming laugh – and the crutch.

He married; they had a daughter; she was ill through her short childhood, and died aged five. J M Barrie adopted her pet phrase for him for his chief character in Peter Pan: Wendy.

We see Henley’s work used again as the title of a Joe Orton play from 1964, The Ruffian on the Stair from his poem:

Madam Life’s a piece in bloom,
Death goes dogging everywhere:
She’s the tenant of the room,
He’s the ruffian on the stair.

Wormwoodiana Blogspot comments on Henley’s deliberate anti-decadence position,  and this is what we see above. Some of his work, however, found a home in their collections.
Henley’s admission into the literary world was an admission into London life: the two were one; what the publishers would accept were London subjects. And so the nation were fed the London choice. There was a proliferation of publications on London life – we see titles like London Types, London Nights, London Visions, Fleet Street Ecologues etc. In Symons’ Paris was an accepted equivalent. There was also a growing interest, in various forms, in people as subject matter. The Socialist ideals along with just a hint of Women’s Suffrage filtered through into literature.

Penguin Classics brought out a wide selection of poetry from the 1890s, called… Poetry of the 1890s.
First published in 1970, the book was reprinted in 1997. It carries a good selection of Henley work from his two major collections, In Hospital, and London Voluntaries (in Poems 1898).

His work can be bracing, particular his hospital portraits, but occasionally falls back on arch diction. His forms verge on free verse, and there the poems stand up well; at other times he allows rhyme scheme to dictate too often:

SCHERZANDO

Down through the ancient Strand
The spirit of October, mild and boon
And sauntering, takes his way
This golden end of afternoon,
As though the corn stood yellow in all the land
And the ripe apples dropped to harvest moon.

Lo! The round sun, half-down the western slope –
Seen as along an unglazed telescope –
…………………………………………………………………….
Gifting the long, lean, lanky street
And its abounding confluences of being
With aspects generous and bland.
……………………………………………………………………..

Echoes of Wordsworth perhaps, on Westminster Bridge; and also imagery for Pound’s Metro? And Eliot?

If we read on, we hear perhaps William Blake, taking a breath of London air:

And even the roar
of the strong streams of toil, that pause and pour
Eastward and westward, sounds suffused –
Seems as it were bemused
And blurred, and like the speech
………………………………………. 

 

I always go back to the portraits, though:

LADY-PROBATIONER

Some three, or five, or seven and thirty years;
A Roman nose; a dimpling double-chin;
Dark eyes, and shy that, ignorant of sin,
Are yet acquainted, it would seem, with tears….
………………………………………………………………….
Her plain print gown, prim cap, and bright steel chain
Look out of place on her, and I remain
Absorbed in her, as in a pleasant mystery.
…………………………………………………………………….
‘Do you like nursing?’ ‘Yes, Sir, very much.’
Somehow, I rather think she has a history.

 

STAFF-NURSE: NEW STYLE

Blue-eyed and bright of face, but waning fast
……………………………………………………………
I view her as she enters, day by day,
As a sweet sunset almost overpast
…………………………………………………………….
She talks of BEETHOVEN; frowns disapprobation
At BALZAC’s  name, sighs it at ‘poor GEORGE SAND’S’;
…………………………………………………………………….
Speaks Latin with a right accentuation;
And gives at need (as one who understands)
Draught, counsel, diagnosis, exhortation.

Is it me, or does anyone else hear Sir John Betjeman in that last one? Not just the title, which is very him, but also the tone. The tone, though, I find here has more warmth, and less of the baffled reserve, the edge of playful caricature of Betjeman. Henley seems genuinely interested in these characters as not just women, nurses, but as people in their own right. These poems catch the social and gender status of their subjects. At this period nurses, like school teachers and women in most areas of employ had to remain single, unmarried. And so we have the, to me slightly dubious, image of:

…… but waning fast
Into the sere of virginal decay
…………………………..

from STAFF-NURSE.

Once again the form constrains him from fuller exploration: the anecdotal and succinct phrasing of the sonnet he uses is not broken open to allow the people to breath fully.

The form is all, though, here. This was Henley’s disciplined self battling through illness, his consolidated fight against the black cloaked vampire of tuberculosis. Looking outwards, resisting the pull inwards to ennui and death.

One of Henley’s projects was to bring the language of the street into the closetted world of verse; his rhythms and diction pushed at the door to let in some air.
Another of his projects was to compile a Dictionary of Slang, which was a successful venture. Villon was translated with its usage. We can see his street lingo work pay off in MADAM LIFE.

If, like me,though,you are still wondering at those earlier pejorative phrases, the mocking tone, in MADAM LIFE then it’s worth another look. Why ‘piece’? And then why ‘Madam’ – it has the suggestions of ‘madame’, proprietor of a brothel. The poem ends:

With his kneebones at your chest,
And his knuckles in your throat,
You would reason — plead — protest!
Clutching at her petticoat;

But she’s heard it all before,
Well she knows you’ve had your fun,
Gingerly she gains the door,
And your little job is done.

Death and Life in cahoots against you! Like the gangster and his moll; she entraps you, he finishes the job. Henley’s vision of life was no cosy Victorian/late Victorian view of upright and honest males and Dickensian maidenliness. I don’t wish to build too much on one lyric, but the bracing and grim humour is revivifying to what he saw as a depleted and aesthete period.

And SCHERZANDO ends

………………………………………………….
Golden, all golden! In a golden glory
Long-lapsing down a golden coasted sky,
The day not dies but seems
Dispersed in whafts and drifts of gold…..
…………………………………………………..

The man could praise and rhapsodise, recognise the wonder of the moment, like the best.

WEH2

from my kindle book, Parameters:
https://www.amazon.co.uk/Parameters-Michael-Murray-ebook/dp/B07893LB8Z/ref=sr_1_1?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1513428648&sr=1-1&keywords=parameters

 

A World Beyond Myself, Enitharmon, 1991

Memories of the Unknown, Harvill Press, 2001

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Part 1: Beginnings

In 1996, New York’s Vintage Press brought out ‘The Vintage Book of World Poetry’; the book settled many reputations, but also introduced many more.

The Dutch writer Rutger Kopland woke up one morning to find himself a world-class poet. Ok, he was already a top-selling author in his own country. But that is the point, as Martinus Nijhoff lamented in 1936, it is a country whose literary appreciation is limited to a small range by its language.

We are very lucky to have the masterful translations of the late James Brockway. He preferred the description of ‘collaborations’, it reflected more the close work with the author to render as near a syllabic and tonal copy as possible.

“…what I am presenting,” he wrote, “…is a Dutch poem by a Dutch mind, but now in the English language”.

James Brockway was made ‘Knight of the Order of the Lion of the Netherlands’ in 1997, for his services to Dutch literature. He died in 2000.

‘Rutger Kopland’ is the pen name of Professor of Psychiatry (retired) Rudi H van den Hoofdakker. He was born in 1934, and has won many prestigious prizes, one of which is the Dutch highest award for literary achievement, the P C Hooft Prize.

Kopland’s first book, Among Cattle, appeared in 1966. The date is important in a number of ways.

In the nineteen fifties Dutch art and literature woke up to experiment; it was a time of cataclysmic experiment in all forms, only paralleled in Dutch poetry by the exuberance of the medieval Rederijker rhetorical guilds.

Of course, as with many such movements, they also carry and help generate the seeds of their successors. Out of the foment of imagistic, lexical experiment a strong realistic note was beginning to be detectable.

Kopland, along with Judith Herzberg are now readily identified as the best representatives of this tone: of a sane, nonrhetorical, everyday language and subject matter.

In this first book are to be found all the tonal keys of his later work. An instant favourite was the first poem of the book, now a much anthologised piece

A PSALM

                     The green pastures the still waters
on the wallpaper in my room –
                     as a frightened child I believed
in wall paper

                   ……………………………………………………………………….

 

The first thing to notice here is the almost total lack of punctuation. In the original there is only the final full stop, even the commas, lines 8 and 14 of the translatioon, do not appear.

We catch the tone of slow, almost ruminative, can we call it, ‘thinking aloud’? Are we overhearing a sotto voce between intimate friends? Husband and wife, perhaps, or is it between father and child, as maybe becomes apparent in the last stanza? I wonder, does it matter: the drama of a listening audience is of less importance, than the manner and intent of the narration.

Also notice the slow accumulation of details that reveal-but-not-reveal the narration: what was it he had, or had been, forgiven? The biblical references (note lowercase ‘god’) and Psalm 23 (“The Lord is my shepherd…”) set a tone, particularly in the traditionally Calvinist/Lutheran Netherlands, for solitary meditative discourse, whose  heavy and responsible purpose: to converse with God, without intercessors, is offset by the witty, chatty aside: ‘as a … child I believed in wall paper…’.

Psalm 23 becomes a constant reference point in his writing.

The setting of the poem: the home, night, childhood, segue into the author’s own fatherhood; the meditative tone; the rural setting : an image of continuity, perhaps.

This may seem a little dated to those only familiar with the great urban sweep from Rotterdam, east and south; it is, however, deeply ingrained in the Dutch cultural model.

Kopland has lived all his working life in a village outside Groningen. This is where many still refer to as the real ‘rural’ Netherlands. These are the heartlands of the Dutch, the green ore that runs through the urban stonework.

What we read with Rutger Kopland, especially with these earlier books, are the books of the Dutch interior: the soul-lands. The irony is, Kopland is the least metaphysical of men; his insights are, I suspect, very much coloured by his profession as clinical neuroscientist.

Kopland was born in 1934; by the time of that terrible winter of German reprisals 1944/5, he would have 10 years old. 10, 1000 died that winter.

Consider the following poem in the book:

UNDER THE APPLE TREE

 

                                         I came home, it was about
                                         eight and remarkable
                                         close for the time of year,

                                        ……………………………………

                                         under the apple tree

                                        ……………………………………………..

                                         watching how my neighbour
                                         was still digging in his garden,

                                         …………………………………………………………….

                                         then slowly it once again became
                                         too beautiful to be true, …………

…………………………………………………………………………………………..

                                         and later I heard the wings
                                         of wild geese in the sky
                                         heard how still and empty
it was becoming

                 …………………………………………………………

                                         under the apple tree,
remarkably close

for our time of life.

Masterly; we scarcely even notice the ‘literaryness’: the ballad-like repetitions of key phrases, the manipulation of mood-buttons. He earns our trust, and the trust of the ordinary reader by foisting no great ideas of redemption on us, by insinuating no Political awkwardness. We get the ‘feel’: the surburbanism of life lived by the ordinary person, with a job, family… in fact, do we recognise in ourselves: nostalgia for the past? This is a claim that plagued Kopland from these early books.

See how he builds the tension from stanza two: the juxtaposing of details of the neighbour (for which read, everyman/the identifier of self as ordinary: the classic Dutch sense of communalness), the change in light: the dark that identifies colours, blues…. Having keyed up the emotions at this point: the ‘…too beautiful to be true…’ (those last three qualifying words communicate so much, particularly in combination with preceding, ‘…once again…’), he immediately disengages and redirects; the emotional response is channelled via the toys in the grass to the house, the laughter of children. The emotions are stirred but not settled, their direction may have been channelled but the mind is made open, the imagination engaged by this “mental event”, so that when the geese fly they are identified immediately as ‘wild’, the sky is emptied by their presence, a sense of immanence is apparent. Once again this keying-up of emotions is channelled to the ‘…precisely you…’. An anchoring, grounding in the here and now.

Kopland displays here a willingness to be honest about feelings, a willingness to be open about his experience of them, of their place in his life and world.

And yes, he is privileged: he has a satisfying though demanding job, he has happy children, he has a close relationship with his partner. Is it Kopland, here? Or is it the ‘ordinary person’? Is it the person glad to be alive, having survived that last terrible winter of the War; like his neighbour he goes through the daily affirmation of survival.

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Following a sequence of poems on his father’s death, we have:

                             MISS A

                            On September 19, a misty

                            nineteenth, Miss A ………….

………………………………………………………………………………..

                           …………………………………………….

……………………………………………. God and the

                            DHSS seemed out of reach.

                            She disembarked.

An altogether different piece. We have here, I think, irony used as a stylistic device; there is no longer the personalizing, intimate nature of the experience, but a distancing. A tragic event; but almost, in this retailing, a news item; the details of particulars: date, boat name, area of mooring.

The domestic details are all laid out for us to see, like the effects of a dead person, to be collected by relatives (us: readers-as-community?), or the unknowns who will come later when our attention is caught by other news. Whichever way it is read we, the reader, or, shall I qualify that: we, the ones amongst the readers who actually care what happened to her – are involved: her fate impinges upon us. We may not be responsible, but we are made witnesses. To be able to remain open, to witness, and not close-off is maybe one of the things makes a workable community.

This poem appeared in print in 1968. This is significant: 1968, and The Netherlands were as much caught up in social upheaval as we were in England. It may be this poem can be read as a response to the student protests, the extreme political factions.

Another, more significant poem of his poems of the period was :

                           YOUNG LETTUCE                        

                           I can stand anything,
the shrivelling of beans

                         …………………………………………………………….

                            But young lettuce in September,
                            just planted, still tender,
in moist little beds, no.                                         

Literary friends would repeat this poem when latest news came through of some new social upheaval, or political upset. Why? It is the understatement; the masterly irony; it is also a poem of great benevolence. The weary retort to old problems presenting themselves in new clothes, of seemingly insurmountable social problems… and yet the response is of a wry gentleness.

Maybe this poem can be read as an attempt at affirming communal responsibilities.

The ironic yet engaged tone of the times, the response of an older generation.

Kopland’s sharper mode was prompted to some extent by what he saw as misreadings of his work. After the anecdotal style a greater dissatisfaction with accepted things became apparent. There emerged a ‘stern’ period of disillusionment.

 Reposted from 2012