Month: July 2015

Charles Burns’ “Black Hole”: Pretty Pictures of Disturbing Shit

Another wonderful comic book, published originally in 12 issues and collected together as a graphic novel in 2005. Like David Mazzucchelli (the man behind “Asterios Polyp”) Burns is both the writer and the artist, the sole creative entity. The art here is stark -full of heavy black color that frames the empty white space into meaning in a manner reminiscent of woodcuts- and since the subject matter is so wonderfully time-stamped in the 1970s, the effect creates a wonderful kind of juxtaposition. The artistic style is far more uniform and consistent than the wandering, narrative imaginings of Mazzucchelli, (with the exception of a few fantastic full-page spreads of fantastic landscapes of detritus and evolutionary misadventures) but they work well both as a narrative accompaniment and on their own aesthetic merit.

The story is compelling and the characters trace an interesting arc of development in this short read. These teens are actually teens, stunted and unformed in equal measure as they try to navigate the kind of social interactions that have adult consequences with minds that lack the experiential context for such an attempt. And no one is irritatingly precocious. This everyman literalism makes “Black Hole” a more immediate and emotionally potent read.

But Black Hole only made me think while I was reading it. There were none of the sticky ideas, the dense informational memes that resurrected themselves out of everyday experiential triggers, slipping into unrelated conversations or driving themselves to the front of my mind while I cooked potatoes. It’s a very good comic book, but it just doesn’t transcend the genre in the same way that personal favorites like “MAUS,” “Asterios Polyp,” and “Watchmen” do.   Burns done a damn fine job with the thing and it’s a wonderful read, but it probably won’t change your life if you read it as an adult.

Recommendation: Read it. It’s short, meaningful, and utterly engaging. Have fun.

Black Hole
by Charles Burns

Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men”

Steinbeck’s prose has never been -for me, at least- so strong a thing as to recommend his writing to me in and of itself. Fortunately, the man is a compelling teller of stories. His characters are often marginalized, the victims of an institutionalized discrimination that leaves them to struggle heroically, but helplessly, against the forces of their doom. Because of the markedly higher stakes, I’ve always found myself drawn to the well-told stories of the disenfranchised. “Of Mice and Men” was published in 1937 -obviously a work that far predates literary favored sons like Denis Johnson and Raymond Carver. Perhaps Steinbeck is glanced over in more prestigious literary circles in this regard for the sin of being incredibly common on high school required reading lists?

Regardless, I loved reading this book. I had somehow missed out on it in high school myself (although I’m certain Young Sean would have loved it) but reading it now, as an adult with formal education in literature and a hell of a lot of damn good books behind me is an equally rewarding experience. I felt the same way about reading Moby-Dick for the first time last year. “Of Mice and Men” is not dependent upon the green-reading nature of an indentured teenaged audience -it’s a powerful and enduring work. Neither is it dependent on plot and surprise -I knew the events of the story before reading it and I felt my reading experience was improved for it (but I’m not really a “spoiler guy” so take that with a grain of salt if you tend to get personally invested in your clean mental pallette).

Recommendation: Read it. Read it again if it’s been a few years. It will be a short and enjoyable revisit.

Nabokov’s ‘Lolita’ and the Inspiration of Aspiration

Full disclosure:

  1. A) Lolita is one of my favorite books of all time
  2. B) This is a re-read -I have know read Lolita 2.6 times (I started and for some reason did not complete a re-read about 2 years back)

Lolita is wonderful. Nabokov is an unmatched master in the classical sense who is more than deserving of every bit of praise he has received. But rather than defaulting to a continued gushing on about how amazing this book is, I’d prefer to take a look at the motivation and rewards of re-reading, and the inspirational/aspirational role of reviewing great art in the context of one’s own creative output.

Lolita is better than the things I make, and it was created long before many of my own literary inspirations were published. It’s been my experience that truly transcendent displays of virtuosity have one of two effects; the devotee of the virtuoso will either run to his own performance of the craft in a frenzy of manic inspiration, or he will step away from the craft for a time, depressed by his own relative lack  of skill. As a young(er) man, I was a rather driven guitar player. I had cut my teeth in church bands and transitioned into playing in metal, post-hardcore, and jazz groups (sometimes all in the same week). I had good gear, good chops, and decent technique. Unfortunately, I also suffered from being an overly-competitive and egocentric young male. Every superior guitar player was a threat, a rival. I would pick apart their playing with the most critical eye possible (sure, he’s fast with those sweep-picked arpeggios, but all he can do is play that fake-ass Yngwie Malmsteen neoclassical bullshit -he couldn’t handle the polyrhythms I have to work with). This was -obviously- incredibly unsatisfying, and that attitude was objectively detrimental to my growth as a musician.

Once I got enough distance from that part of my life to recognize those kind of tendencies in myself I worked hard to try and move beyond that place of ego. Not to say that excellence in a creative endeavor doesn’t require ego; it absolutely does. There is an inherent conceit in the root idea of “lots of people should take time out of their day to mentally upload the words and ideas I make up”. At the same time, that excessively masculine and externally deprecating ego (displayed most publicly in, say,Hemingway and Norman Mailer) is absolutely toxic. Some of my  best writing has forced itself into objective existence in a literary post-coital afterglow.

I can see myself coming back to Lolita, specifically for this effect. There is no better example of an immediately recognizable voice, a voice that we have every reason to deplore but cannot help but come alongside of, invest in. While there is certainly a danger of coming off as a second-rate Nabokov clone when sampling so heavily for inspiration, I don’t think my own work would suffer for being a bit more Nabokovian than it is now.

Recommendation: Read it. Duh.


by Vladimir Nabokov