Soft City by Pushwagner

soft-city-coverOn a screen everything is the same size and the same texture with the same frame. The New York Review Books publication of Soft City is a significant challenge to the saming of culture. It’s 9.7 x 0.9 x 13.6 inches and 3.4 lbs.

It’s a big book, and it took a long time for it to be published in 2008, after Pushwagner finished it in 1975. Chris Ware in the introduction writes that, “The whole seems drawn entirely from the need to realize a consuming vision, a writer ruminating (“Where is the mind when the body is here?”) while his artist half looks on in horror. For Ware, the book falls into neither, “the fine arts [nor] the underground comics” camp, “ultimately its tone feels dire and experimental; it wows visually but gets under one’s skin in an unfamiliar, uncompanionable manner introducing the awkward revelations of 1960s experimental film, writing and poetry to a medium at that point was more popularly associated with superheroes.

Hariton Pushwgner (Terje Brofos) begins with two blank, black pages before the third page, still black has the words “Good morning everybody.” The next page, still mostly black, says, “look…” but the bottom fifth of the page is a white strip with hundreds of small rough squares with what look like TV aerials on top. Then we get closer, and the white strip fills more of the page, “here comes…” and finally the page is white, the building fills most of the page and “the sun” peers above the building. The baby is awake. His is head huge.  As you move through the larger spreads, the family leaves the private world of their home and heads to the massive uniform worlds of the father’s workplace and the mother’s shopping day. The word “soft” appears on many of the pages.  The father reads the “Soft Times”; he works at “Soft Inc.;” the parents take a “soft pill” when they wake up.  When the father steps out of his front door, as far as you can see into the fold of the pages, identical men and one woman step into the corridor, pack into the lift,and rows and rows of mothers and babies wave from the stacked windows of the tower block. The crowd grows as he drives to work into Soft City.


Later we cut to the mother’s day, and “the Boss” watching his workers. In a spread of the boss’ office, the artist tells us “What a funny freedom untouched by human hands.” The boss thinks “Soft love is a 100% bonne affair” and “Atomize is de trix”.  His thoughts about the workers: “They are asleep.” Then he tells them, “120! Understand? Oracle filter.” The pictures make a more direct statement of humanity commodified and undifferentiated on a treadmill put in boxes.

This is a magnificent, unsettling work that maybe makes a statement that has been derived from Kafka and developed by Orwell and so many others.  And yet, it’s its own work, and an important piece of art in a world where our devices use software to softly steal our attention without us realising it is even gone. Work such as Pushwagner’s wakes us up.


Poem Strip by Dino Buzzati

I have developed a habit of writing these reviews as a reminder of why I read and of what I have read.  Recently the habit has been graphic novels, partly because I can have a full sense of them with all the other reading that I have to do.  And because they are worth it themselves.

Graphic fiction is a slow film.  A filmed play with incredible visual possibilities that go perhaps further than movies, because a film has a requirement to create a believable world, reality or  virtual reality; it has to somehow be habitable. A graphic artist can push the shape and shade even further than a cinematographer can.  With any book you can take the story at your speed given what the author gives you.  You can read it where you want to read it.  You can stretch out in whatever position your prefer and have that tea or beer by your side.

This book is a Fellini film, a Toulouse-Lautrec poster and a Greek myth rolled together.  Orfi who sees his beloved Eura walk into the strange house on Via Saterna, which inspires all sorts of dark stories from the neighbours. Orfi is a rock star from a noble family who sings raunchy songs accompanied here by Buzzati’s voluptuous drawings.

He goes to try to find Eura in the strange house, and it turns out to lead to the underworld.  Buzzatti’s underworld is a brothel with full of naked bodies, but few echoes of earthly life’s desires. Orfi is immune to temptation, however, focused on his search for Eura.  He sings song after song of death after death, until he realises that in death the dead no longer need the god they needed in life. He is finally granted 24 hours in the underworld to find Eura.  He eventually finds her after searching for most of his time through a Kafkaesque labyrinth.  When he finally finds his love, she is reluctant to leave with him, “Your songs are not enough.  Here the great law decides.  Don’t believe those old myths.” Eventually, she refuses to leave with him

It is fantastic that NYRB Books are republishing these older graphic works bringing them into our world where the visual is so powerful and where a whole art form is bursting with vigour and creativity.

The Big Kahn

51vaeis2tvl-_sy344_bo1204203200_The Rabbi Who Wasn’t Jewish

by Neil Kleid and Nicolas Cinquegrani

When Rabbi David Kahn  dies, his brother turns up at the funeral.  No great surprise in most cases, except no one knew that he had a brother.  A further shock: Roy Dobbs isn’t Jewish.  He claims his brother wasn’t either, but that they had been a pair of small time con men. Avi Kahn, David’s son, is poised to take over the congregation, but through the mourning and the doubts raised by the revelations, he is not sure he can.  Donnie (David) and Roy had been running a grift at a bar mitzvah, when Donnie met Rachel and fell for her.  He had to keep up the pretence that the brothers had used to get into the bar mitzvah that he was Jewish.

The novel is about how the three children cope with their new story of their father’s life. Lea hits the town and doesn’t want to go home; young Eli gets into fights at school while gambling, and Avi becomes involved with Lea’s room mate.

As things go on, Lea visits a Jewish women’s class, Avi applies for a new job.  The central irony of the book is that a con led to a man living the best life he could building a temple from scratch and fathering a happy family, despite the lie that is central to his life.  Kleid takes this right up to last moment, and Cinquegrani’s dark lines and gray washes are a straightforward medium for the tale.

The Vision

4839761-the_vision_1_cover-669x1028The first collection in an on-going series. I don’t usually read superhero comics–it’s other ones that interest me, but this is recommended by Gene Luen Yang , whose work everyone should read.

This is a familiar suburban story of a new family moving into a house on Hickory Branch Lane, Arlington, VA.  A suburb where they are not really welcome. The family are different–they are synthbots.  The Vision, his wife, Virginia, and their children Viv and Vin. They are trying to live a good life here, but nothing really works out. The Vision is off–he’s one of the Avengers– tackling super-villains especially Ultron.  Viv is attacked by the Grim Reaper, and during her recovery, Vin gets suspended from school for fighting with another boy.

Neighbours graffiti their house.  Another tries to blackmail them. Vin is isolated in high school.  The plan is not working. The family don’t always go in the same direction.

We are told early on that two neighbours, who bring cookies to the newcomers, will die because “one of the Visions will set George and Nora’s house on fire.”  It doesn’t happen in this book. The story continues.  The Vision has his doubts about whether he should continue saving humanity. “He would fix what had been broken.  He would hide what could not be fixed…He who longed to be human..recognized that it was a human decision that every day all men and women make this same choice, to go on even though they could not possibly go on.” It ends with him trying to do everything to bring happiness to his family.  The synthbots are as human as the humans.



American Widow by Alissa Torres

51jtw9rfnvl-_sy344_bo1204203200_What was it like for the widows of people who died in the World Trade Center in 2001. Alissa Torres writes about her experience in this graphic memoir  with art by Sungyoon Choi.

At the end of the book, on the first anniversary of 9/11, Allissa goes to Hawaii–away from it all. A relief from the shock and the struggle to rebuild her life and to get the relief from organizations like the Red Cross that had raised so much money to support the families of the victims.  All the lofty rhetoric was empty, as rhetoric so often is , and this book takes the reader to the ground and step step you enter the daily life of those truly affected by the tragedy.

How to Talk to Girls at Parties

26372Anything Neil Gaiman publishes these days deserves and grabs attention. This is deserved not least for his role as writer of the one of the most important graphic sequences The Sandman . This short story —original text is available on Gaiman’s website–will be a film directed by John Cameron Mitchell, in 2017.  This version is illustrated by graphic artists Fabio Moon and Gabriel Ba.

Don’t look to Gaiman for the advice suggested in the title.  It seems to boil down to “You just have to talk to them.” as Vic–the confident one–says to Enn–his shy friend. The two are trying to find a party without the full details, and instead gatecrash a different party that seems to be a mostly female gathering of exchange students.  Where they are from is a mystery. Vic quickly finds a way to get Stella upstairs. After talking to a couple of girls–Enn finally meets Triolet (a poem of eight lines, typically of eight syllables each, rhyming abaaabab and so structured that the first line recurs as the fourth and seventh and the second as the eighth.).  This story is a poem–the drawings add imagery that sparkles and takes you right to the heart of the solar system if not beyond. Triolet is more spirit than person. “She began to whisper something in my ear. It’s the strangest thing about poetry. You can tell it’s poetry even if you don’t speak the language.” Enn and Vic leave the party in a hurry after Stella seems to turn on Vic.  They have touched a world outside of our own, but return to the everyday streets of an English town.

Gaiman, Moon and Bar have taken a simple story of two boys on the pull and turned it into a graphic poem.  I am not sure what the film will do– it will have to make too many decisions, but I will see it anyway.

The original story won the  Locus Award