Other Nexus Graphica Columns
For more information, you can try the following:
The R. Crumb website
Good overview of Crumb's Genesis from "Killing the Buddha"
Shane White is appearing at A.P.E.
John Cheever's terrific short story "The Swimmer"
Rod Serling's "A Stop at Willoughby"
Bob Dylan Revisited
Peckinpah's Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid
Recent Books of Interest
Things Undone script and art by Shane White (NBM/Comicslit)
Who doesn't like a zombie? Heck, I'm in the midst of my own YA lit-prose take on the
zombie apocalypse (I swear I had this idea years ago, pre-boom, but the Danger Boy
project kept me from getting to it for awhile -- now my timing is either really great or just
mid-stampede...) Here, Shane White uses zombie-fication as a metaphor to cover territory that
would be familiar to 60s-era readers of the prose of Updike or Cheever, or anyone whose caught
a recent Twilight Zone rerun of the "Stop at Willoughby" episode: it's the man in
the gray flannel suit, beaten down by his job, the expectations of his performance "in the
marketplace," the shallowness of his emotional and sexual connections, etc. Except now, that
man is still in his 20s, wearing Vans and peg-leg jeans, and working for a gaming company
instead of with the Mad Men at an ad agency. And protagonist Rick Watts finds his
angst metastasizing into his own admittedly not-subtle incipient zombie-ness, as he loses pieces
of flesh, fingers, feet, etc., as he goes through his day, and his life, in increasingly necrotic
fashion. Not the most subtle use of the zombie metaphor of course -- indeed, just a riff off
where Romero took it with his original social masterwork Dawn of the Dead (as are riffs in my
own WIP). The black and orange color scheme suit the art well, however, and of course make this
a terrific Halloween gift for the young career-track professional on your autumn gift
list. But is working in video games really that much of a drag?
High Moon by David Gallaher (script) and Steve Ellis (art) (Zuda comics).
Who doesn't love a werewolf? Or a western? In this case, Gallaher and Ellis combine them both,
with a gunslinger/werewolf roaming the Texas territories in High Plains Drifter fashion,
only with much more teeth and fur. This was an initial fan favorite at DC's online "Zuda" imprint/incubator,
and here makes the leap into collected print (though new episodes continue to unfurl digitally),
and the rhythms of the online installments can be seen -- felt -- here in the plotting. Most of
which is a lot of fun, and replete with quite a few neat reversals (indeed, the "reversal" seems
to be a hallmark of Gallaher's writing), though also some under-explained sequences as well. Is
everyone in the West some kind of demon or night-creature? In the over-developed, over-promoted
land it has become -- I speak as a native son -- that may be an apt metaphor, but sometimes, you
just want to know if there's anybody that can be killed by an actual, "regular" bullet. Still,
you're not gonna go far wrong if you cue up the Morricone on your iPod, and give it a Halloween read.
Bob Dylan Revisited, lyrics by Bob Dylan, with various artists (Norton)
Who doesn't love Bob Dylan? The former folksinger-turned electric troubadour-turned American
institution is here given a career-spanning "graphic interpretation" (if you're not counting
the previous narrative films, documentaries, and music videos). The set up is simple: take
some Dylan lyrics and dispatch an artist to offer up a multi-panel interpretation. So these
do approximate the music videos, then, except in comics form. The question is whether this
adds to interpretation of the Zimmerman canon. My favorite was probably "A Hard
Rain's a-Gonna Fall," by Lorenzo Mattotti, taking a song whose lyrics have especially haunted
me since becoming a father, literalizing the phrase "blue-eyed son," and making it a candy colored
apocalyptic journey. Others, like Dave McKean's long take on the, well, long "Desolation
Row," park the lyrics up front, and let the art unfold separately. It might be interesting
to flip through these sections while listening to the song in question -- something I hadn't
done yet at press time. Still others, like the literalness of the Western showdown in "Knockin'
on Heaven's Door," makes you wonder if anything has been added to the original sequence in
the Sam Peckinpah film in which the song first appeared. If there's a sequel, though, I want
to see "Mr. Tambourine Man" and "(It's All Over Now) Baby Blue."
And so arrives the one book -- especially the one "graphic novel-y" type book -- I've
been waiting for all year. (Well, I wouldn't mind a look at the latest Umbrella Academy
collection, either, but it hasn't shown up yet....)
Copyright © 2009 Mark London Williams
And that book would be the already much-discussed book of Genesis, illustrated
by one of my own favorite cartoonists (as longtime readers of this column can attest): R. Crumb.
My reasons for waiting eagerly -- hungrily? -- for the book may not be quite the same
as yours. I grew up with Crumb, as I've previously written about, and the whole birth of the
"underground comix" scene in my San Francisco Bay Area child and teen-hood.
And I also teach Sunday school.
That's quite a leap from one to the other, but yes, I've been teaching for many moons now
at a local Reform Temple here in L.A. -- it was a job I thought I'd have for a year or
two, after grad school. I was a young married, and eager to get my writing
career (always a word we writers fear having to use "advisedly") going, but having just
been part of a rather stimulating Saturday morning Torah study group (the Torah being,
specifically, the "Books of Moses" a.k.a. the first five books of the Bible a.k.a. the
Pentateuch, etc.) that met around various kitchen or coffee tables and dissected all the
chronicled in what has become the foundational myth cycle of the modern West.
Before that, I'd gone to a Unitarian church in Berkeley -- a good 70s-era spiritual
home for this son with both an Episcopal dad and Jewish mom.
So I applied for the Sunday school position -- originally, it was a 5th grade class
on Prophets and Judges (those books come after the Torah), and I was always partial
to the on-the-lam prophetic sorts with warrants out for their arrest. Plus, it
seemed like fun. And it was.
Especially given the cheerful latitude I was allowed in class (it's that kinda Temple...).
After my "one or two years" at this part-time job stretched to the better part of two
decades, outlasted my marriage, and is now a place where my sons are doing some of
their growing, I find myself, these last several years, no longer with the Prophets
but teaching the class that comes the year before it: Torah.
And I am constantly looking for new, challenging ways to bring all this passionate,
appalling, redemptive behavior, and these stories, into the class in ways that make
sense for the young folk sitting round their tables on a Sunday morn (some of whom
come back, years later, as teaching assistants!)
I've used film (Field of Dreams, to show what happens when we presume ourselves
charged with otherworldly orders), TV (the Futurama episode where Bender thinks he's
God -- or becomes one, to small critters living on his body), drama, drawing, music,
video-making, and more.
But until now, I've never really been able to use comics.
Most "Bible comics" were kind of lame -- and produced mostly from the "right," to use
the term in its broadest sense. In other words, by folks whose agenda was to make kids
sign off on a specific interpretation of this grand myth cycle populated by feuding
generations who flee from, schtupp, murder, love, and finally -- at the end of this
particular volume -- forgive each other, each while trying to understand their
relationship to the numinous force we've termed "God."
But now, here comes Crumb, with his literal illustration of Genesis' story cycle (the
work him around five years to complete, the stories go), sparing not a single detail
of the original saga. Lot's daughters seducing their father after the fall of Sodom
and Gomorrah? It's in here (though not in the way it might've been in his Zap Comix
days). Onan "spilling his seed?" Well, that's in here too -- as well as naked people
in primeval gardens, etc., and et al., though all of it more in a "soft R" kind of
way (as other critics have noted), rather than in the XXX-style of the Crumb of old.
Crumb's approach, as he states it, was to "illustrate the stories not as religious
propaganda, but as dramatic, profound, and sometimes lurid myth and legends. If that
outrages some believers," he adds, "well, you can't please everyone."
Especially not, these days, on questions of religion, faith, and "belief." But Crumb
doesn't change anything here -- his text is lifted both from King James, and a more
recent translation by Robert Alter. But of course they way he populates his frames is
bound to startle some readers. For starters, all these early day Jewish folk look, well,
Jewish! With the beards and earrings, a couple of the men remind me of some of my
older cousins, in fact.
But this goes toward deconstructing some of the cultural myths that have accrued
around the Bible, and its various historical misuses by the powerful, over these
As for the women, well, Crumb has a field day with these wide-hipped, dark-haired,
utterly zaftig and usually wild Ur-hippie gals. And we can say "Ur" here, because
this is the book the term --and the city! -- came from.
What's surprising is the somewhat reverential tone that pervades the work, as
well. Crumb treats these stories as if they matter -- that it is important for us
to try and understand what they mean. Or what those who are utterly convinced of
knowing their meaning think they mean.
As for Sunday school, well, I've already had the book in the classroom. I can't quite
pass it around freely -- Eve's breasts may overly discombobulate those 4th grade boys
on a Sunday morn -- but I'll certainly be using his versions of certain stories. I
have my eyes on the Esau and Jacob tale, already (a favorite in class, with its
ultimate sibling rivalry).
And maybe, too, the story of Jacob wrestling, well, "an angel," as some versions have
it. This happens years later, as Jacob makes a haunted, return flight to the brother
he'd betrayed earlier, not knowing if uneasy peace, or his own violent death, lay ahead.
Camped by a river, alone, Jacob winds up wrestling with a "man" -- or a stranger, or
a "being," depending on the translation. Crumb here goes with "man," and while the result
may remind some of Alan Bates and Oliver Reed wrestling in Ken Russell's Women in Love,
the quiet mystery of the scene, with the "man" able to bestow a blessing on Jacob
and a name-change, in exchange for his release, allows room for one's own thoughts
about just what the hell -- or heaven -- is going on here.
As for that changed name, the mysterious stranger/being/man informs Jacob that his new
name is "Israel." "El" is one of the roots meaning "God," and the transformed moniker
now means "one who wrestles with God."
Or as Crumb translates it, "He who struggled with divine beings."
Crumb here as struggled, wrestled with, this particular holy writ. And while the object
is not to "come out on top" -- too much of that attached to Bible interpretation as it
is -- he, like Jacob, seems to have come to a particular place of illumination.
For which we are the richer.
Mark London Williams writes the Danger Boy time travel series,
which is currently being developed for large and small screens,
and is currently hard at work chronicling his here-referenced of the L.A. apocalypse.
He also a contributor to entertainment biz trade papers like Variety, Below the Line,
and more. He gets Twittery @mlondonwmz