JARED GARDNER reviews Journalism and Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt and finds that the radical disjunction between how Hedges and Sacco approach their subjects is fascinating and instructive.
It has been a good fifteen years now since our cultural gatekeepers collectively patted themselves on the back for having discovered that comics were “not just for kids anymore,” and in that time several remarkable achievements in the form have found their way into the critical spotlight. But for every Persepolis and Fun Home that has become the focus of such attention (and landed on high school and university class syllabi alongside the long-time lonesome Maus), the last generation has also seen dozens of major works of graphic literature largely ignored by those who do not buy their books in stores with names like “The Laughing Ogre” or “Forbidden Planet.”
It could reasonably be argued that the most under-appreciated creator working in the form today is Joe Sacco. Despite the awards and accolades his books have earned over the years, the fact that he is not read and studied more regularly alongside what have come to be considered canonical works in graphic nonfiction would be surprising were the reasons for the neglect not fairly clear. Sacco’s work focuses almost exclusively on war zones and the seemingly hopeless plight of the perennially dispossessed, and most American readers don’t like their portraits of despair unleavened by “hope” or easy answers. Sacco, it would seem, is constitutionally incapable of fakery of this kind, even for narrative effect. No wonder, then, that Sacco resists a wholesale critical and scholarly embrace.
Image: Panel from Journalism by Joe Sacco
Bechdel has likened Fun Home to a labyrinth, but compared to the lush, involuted underworld of Are You My Mother? it seems classical and well-lit—a Greek temple built over Minoan ruins. writes HEATHER LOVE
Bechdel’s beautiful, witty, absorbing memoir about her father was one of the most beloved books of the past decade. With its layered personal and social histories, its play with perspective and memory, and its sheer narrative interest, Fun Home was an instant classic. In her most recent book, Bechdel expands the intimate archive of her family, turning the focus from her father to her mother. It is perhaps not surprising, then, that many have reacted to the book with an emotion often directed at mothers: rageful disappointment.
Bruce Bechdel was an aesthete, avid reader, and closeted gay man who committed suicide while Alison was in college; Fun Home is a highly controlled, spare book, a lot like the modernist masterpieces that Bechdel’s father admires. Are You My Mother? is, by comparison, a sprawling postmodern epic. There are few dramatic turning points; the action is mostly internal as we witness Bechdel’s struggles with her writing, her lovers, her therapists, and her mother—who is, significantly, very much alive.
The artist must take sides. He must elect to fight for freedom or slavery. I have made my choice. I had no alternative.
GILBERT KING depicts how Paul Robeson’s speech at the Paris Peace Conference in 1949 was prefabricated and misquoted by the Associated Press and subsequently blown out of proportion by the American political establishment and media to denounce him as a traitor
In April 1949, just as the Cold War was beginning to intensify, actor, singer and civil rights activist Paul Robeson traveled to France to attend the Soviet Union-sponsored Paris Peace Conference. After singing “Joe Hill,” the famous ballad about a Swedish-born union activist falsely accused and convicted of murder and executed in Utah in 1915, Robeson addressed the audience and began speaking extemporaneously, as he often did, about the lives of black people in the United States. Robeson’s main point was that World War III was not inevitable, as many Americans did not want war with the Soviet Union.
Before he took the stage, however, his speech had somehow already been transcribed and dispatched back to the United States by the Associated Press. By the following day, editorialists and politicians had branded Robeson a communist traitor for insinuating that black Americans would not fight in a war against the Soviet Union. Historians would later discover that Robeson had been misquoted, but the damage had been almost instantly done. And because he was out of the country, the singer was unaware of the firestorm brewing back home over the speech. It was the beginning of the end for Robeson, who would soon be declared “the Kremlin’s voice of America” by a witness at hearings by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). Committee chair John Wood, a Georgia Democrat, summoned baseball great Jackie Robinson to Washington. Robinson, appearing reluctantly, denounced Robeson’s views and assured the country that the singer did not speak on behalf of black Americans. Robeson’s passport was soon revoked, and 85 of his planned concerts in the United States were canceled. Some in the press were calling for his execution. Later that summer, in civil rights-friendly Westchester County, New York, at the one concert that was not canceled, anti-communist groups and Ku Klux Klan types hurled racial epithets, attacked concertgoers with baseball bats and rocks and burned Robeson in effigy. A man who had exemplified American upward mobility had suddenly become public enemy number one. Not even the leading black spokesmen of the day, whose causes Robeson had championed at great personal cost, felt safe enough to stand by the man dubbed as the “Black Stalin” during the Red Scare of the late 1940s and ’50s.
Photo: Paul Robeson, in 1942, leads Oakland shipyard workers in the singing of the National Anthem. (Credit)
The most urgent task today for those who might once have been traditional intellectuals is to invoke the historical experience of the ruled, to underwrite their self-respect, and to proffer — not to display — intellectual confidence.
From “who governs” to “how to survive” — JOHN BERGER on the crisis of the public intellectual.
The cultural critic and Marxist radical argued in this insightful essay (published in The New Statesman, March 1988) that the insatiable demands of consumerism, and the dominance of advertising and public relations in political as well as cultural life, were overwhelming the more subtle and valuable tradition of intellectualism.
Those who rule are today legitimised by manufactured popularity, while the aspirations of the ruled are smothered by manipulated consumerist fears and promises. It is here that advertising achieves its political, as distinct from economic, purpose: politics have become management.
In the modern world, in which thousands of people are dying every hour as a consequence of politics, no writing anywhere can begin to be credible unless it is informed by political awareness and principles.
JEET HEER reviews Gilbert Hernandez’s two new books and says that both the books opens up a cultural landscape most of us have only a glimmer of.
Gilbert Hernandez, who this spring publishes two new books, is one of the great artists of the other America, the country that is only fitfully and incompletely acknowledged by cultural custodians. For more than three decades, he has been writing and drawing an epic cycle of comic-book stories that give us a new geography of American culture by showing us the waves of migration that tie states like California and Texas to their Spanish-speaking southern neighbours.
At the heart of Hernandez’s life’s work are stories of the small fictional town of Palomar, located “somewhere south of the U.S. border.” At first, Palomar seems like a magic realist Latino shtetl, an organic community of midwives and witches where people are poor but vital. But through the course of the Palomar cycle, Hernandez overturned the clichés of magical realism by showing that Palomar is as much a part of the modern world as anywhere else. The grandchildren of the original Palomarians live in Los Angeles and elsewhere. They struggle with racism and sexual identity, problems that bedevil their ancestral town as well.
Without being agitprop, the Palomar stories are among the most naturally multicultural works ever created in any medium. Hernandez’s characters come in all different shades from many backgrounds. The constant fusion of cultural identities in Hernandez’s many graphic novels is one of the best depictions we have of the new America that is being born under the shadow of the official national narrative.
Image: Detail of a panel from Julio’s Day by Gilbert Hernandez
Throughout his long career, Francis Bacon (1909-1992) steadfastly focused on the human figure as the subject of his paintings. Unlike other major artists of his time who reveled in abstraction, such as Jackson Pollock and Barnett Newman, Bacon never deviated from his commitment to making images of people. Yet while extending the timeless tradition of figuration, he invented profound and startling new ways of portraying people as he distorted the inhabitants of his painterly world in order to “unlock the valves of feeling and therefore return the onlooker to life more violently. Bacon’s most recognizable image, and hence most famous painting, is the screaming pope ofStudy after Velazquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X, 1953. As the title states, this picture was inspired by Diego Velázquez’s extraordinarily lifelike portrait of a powerful and unscrupulous pope who duplicitously took the name Innocent.
Painted in 1650 at the height of the Baroque period, shortly after his arrival in Rome from Spain, it was Velázquez’s eminently successful attempt to rival the portraiture of Titian and the great painters of Italy. The subject of the painting is unquestionably the most powerful man in the world. He sits confidently on the papal throne, fully at ease ex cathedra -literally from the cathedral seat-as God’s representative on earth. The true brilliance of Velázquez’s accomplishment in this painting is to have satisfied his demanding papal client with a flattering, beautifully rendered portrait while at the same time passing on for the ages the unmistakable hint of corrupt character and deep-seated deceit behind that well-ordered and stern facial façade. Haunted and obsessed by the image … by its perfection, Bacon sought to reinvent Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X in the papal portraits that form the focus of the current exhibition. In the great Des Moines painting, the Study after Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X, Bacon updates the classical image by transforming the Spanish artist’s confident client and relaxed leader into a screaming victim. Trapped as if manacled to an electric chair, the ludicrously drag-attired subject is jolted into involuntary motion by external forces or internal psychoses. The eternal quiet of Velázquez’s Innocent is replaced by the involuntary cry of Bacon’s anonymous, unwitting, tortured occupant of the hot seat. One could hardly conceive of a more devastating depiction of postwar, existential angst or a more convincing denial of faith in the era that exemplified Nietzsche’s declaration that God is dead.
There are good Bacons, sublime and terrifying ones, and a few failures. He must have been one of the most self-critical artists of the 20th century, a ruthless destroyer of his own work. Beyond a certain point he could not rework an image: it had to be scrapped. To hang on to it would have blurred and fouled up the “look” he prized, which was not highly finished - his way of painting on the wrong side of the canvas precluded finish - but, by the standards of “beautiful painting”, disagreeably scrubby. But then, he did so admire and envy the old masters, and he paid a peculiar sort of tribute to them in the way he chose to frame and present his paintings, behind enormous sheets of glass (so that one had the fleeting impression of glimpsing something rather alarming, but involuntarily, as through a window) and surrounded by broad, thick, glittering, gilded mouldings, so polished and bright as to negate the idea of touch. The frame and its contents do not quite cancel one another out, but they imply cancellation. Which, together with the anguish of the body’s transgressive pleasures, is only another of Bacon’s paradoxes.
The 1957 novel seems to be Kerouac’s attempt to mythologize his band of friends so that they would escape time, writes DAVID L. ULIN.
Even when I first read “On the Road,” as a teenager in the 1970s, the core of its action — driving, talking, smoking dope, listening to music — was what my friends and I did every day. It took me years to understand what the book was getting at, which is the bittersweet ephemerality of everything, the idea that to “know time” is to know ourselves as at time’s mercy, which makes its frantic movement less exuberant than desperate.
That is Kerouac’s message, the message at the heart of all his fiction, made explicit by the ancient hitchhiker who, late in the novel tells Sal to “Go moan for man.” Tellingly, this idea is absent from the movie, which is about not desolation but a kind of studied cool instead.
To be fair, such a pose has its roots with Kerouac also — or more accurately, with Cassady. This is one of the most common misreadings of “On the Road,” that, in the words of Kerouac’s friend, the novelist John Clellon Holmes, “[People] kept mixing Jack up with Dean Moriarty, they kept thinking he was like Dean Moriarty — in other words, Neal Cassady — and he wasn’t.”
Image: Jack Kerouac in 1967 in his hometown of Lowell, Massachusetts, where his only full-length play will be staged. Photograph: Stanley Twardowicz/AP (Credit)