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Nexus Graphica
by Mark London Williams

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Other Nexus Graphica Columns
For more information, you can try the following:
On the Ropes
Kings in Disguise
Kate Worley
WPA (Works Progress Administration)
We Can Fix It
Ben Katchor
Free Danger Boy download
Recent Books of Interest
We Can Fix It by Jess Fink (Top Shelf)
We Can Fix It Cartoonist Jess Fink's time travel piece is actually a simple one -- future Jess decides to travel back to see if she can stop her younger selves from making some of the dumber choices in her life. There are no causality conundrums here, not much in the way of "science" fiction at all -- the time machine was just a purchase that her future partner made, and she wanted to give it a spin. In fact, the most interesting plot element specific to such "chronological displacement" is that future Jess winds up in repeated orgies with her younger selves. Is it group sex? Or technically still just masturbation? Indeed, time-voyaging aside, the book mainly functions as a memoir of how one sex-positive cartoonist finally "found" herself, and all our dumb choices (like the non-dumb ones) shape us and make us who we are. And generally, if life is treating us at all kindly we need to be grateful -- the book reminds us -- even for those awkward/painful times that brought us to our present place. Whether you'd choose to get in bed with that dumb mistake-making earlier you is another consideration.

Hand-Drying in America and Other Stories by Ben Katchor (Pantheon)
Hand-Drying in America and Other Stories I've loved Ben Katchor's work since The Jew of New York, with its use of architecture, pipes, conduits, economic manifest destiny and more as a means of revealing character. Here, in a thick hard-bound collection of architecturally and infra-structure based observations of humanity (though let's not forget Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer, either) Katchor doesn't follow a single character, or even build a story. Rather, it's a collection of revelatory shards, most just a couple of pages long (though these are big square pages, and he manages to squeeze in lots of panels), showing different peoples's interactions with buildings, sidewalks, history, restaurant menus, zoning laws, supermarket shelves, and so much more, much of it set in fictive East Coast cities and neighborhoods. The title story, for example, deals with one man's attempt to dry his hands in an upscale restaurant, only to find the electric dryer out-of-order and the paper towel dispensary empty. This sets into motion a small chain of events which include keenly observed disintegrating cocktail napkins, non-absorbent dinner linens, and more, culminating in a wet handshake that leaves a foreign visitor with an uneasy feeling. Such is Katchor's metier, and it's a fine book to keep around for dipping in and out of, each encounter leaving you with a sense of a satisfying read (though perhaps leavened with occasional puzzlement). You may never view the landscape of your own city quite the same way again.

On the Ropes -- NG's James Vance Interview

On the Ropes Last month, I mentioned how much I liked the James Vance / Dan Burr graphic novel On the Ropes, a sequel to their two-decades past masterpiece, Kings in Disguise, which I said "reads like a combination of Clifford Odets and James M. Cain." Or you can think of it as Carnivàle without the mysticism.

In the intervening month, I was lucky enough to catch up with Vance -- virtually speaking -- and lob some interview questions his way, to which he gave considered and thoughtful replies.

So without further ado, the Nexus Graphica interview with writer James Vance:

What made for critical mass for a sequel now? Or has it been in the works a long time?

You could say it's been a pretty long time. Both Kings in Disguise and On the Ropes started out as plays that I wrote back in the late 70s and early 80s, and Ropes has actually been around even longer than Kings. After the Kings graphic novel came out -- we serialized it starting in 1988 and collected it in '90 -- I started kicking around the idea of following it up with a Ropes graphic novel. But the timing just wasn't right then for such a big project. Both of those stories had to be expanded far beyond the original plays, and carving out the time to do research for something as complex as Ropes had to be, let alone the actual writing, just wasn't in the cards at the time.

When I was approached about reprinting Kings in late 2004, the question of a sequel came up, and circumstances were different. My wife Kate Worley had just died, and she'd always believed in Kings. In a way, it was part of what had brought us together. So doing the sequel was a kind of tribute to her. And, frankly, I hadn't done any comics work for a few years, and I was curious to see if I could still do it.

Kings in Disguise

Since we've had another depression, essentially, since Kings in Disguise came out, how did that influence the writing of the sequel?

That's a reasonable question, but it really didn't influence it at all. The economic collapse we've been going through started in late 2006, and by that time Dan Burr and I were already working on the book. There was a moment around the time the Occupy movement was going strong that he and I were talking on the phone, and Dan remarked that we'd started out as a period piece, and we'd suddenly become current events... but it's really just a coincidence.

It certainly would have been easy to tweak the script to make it more obviously "relevant," but that would have meant sacrificing one of the book's strengths for a short-term gain. You can tweak a story to make today's readers think you're speaking specially to them, but then what's left for the readers of tomorrow or next year? Just because something is a part of history doesn't mean it isn't still relevant to us today. It doesn't even mean that it isn't still going on, in some way.

I think Kings in Disguise was considered worth reprinting -- and On the Ropes seems to be speaking to current readers -- because we made honest attempts to portray particular moments in time, and people are responding to what's universal in those characters' lives on both a human level and a political one.

Which real-life events and characters were used as influences/composites for the book?

As for the characters, they're 100% fiction. I can't think of any who were influenced by real-life figures. I made them up out of whole cloth, and Dan built them physically from the ground up. A few minor situations were suggested by actual events -- for instance, the anecdote about trying to frame the labor worker by planting dynamite in his car was based on a passing reference in an oral history that I read -- but the main action is all invented.

Those few weeks in 1937, when the bulk of the story takes place, were so loaded with incident that there was no point in disguising them as something else. My approach was to immerse myself in those events and then play what-if with the characters, weaving them into what was going on in their part of the world as they acted out their own dramas.

On the Ropes

WPA Circuses!? As much as I thought I knew about the WPA, this particular aspect seems to have eluded me. Could be worthy of its own sub-genre. Did you know this would be a "circus book," going into it?

Before I'd even thought of doing the original play, I remember sitting in a restaurant and the image came to me, out of the blue, of a man standing on a gallows platform and talking to an audience. Around the same time, I was looking into the theater scene of the 1930s, and at some point that gallows image and the research came together in my mind and I began to get a glimmer about how it could all fit. So there was never a plan to write a circus story, but as the rough ideas for the characters and storyline slowly came together, that's how it developed.

And yes, there really was a WPA circus. It was part of the Federal Theater Project and operated from 1935-39. It gave jobs to out-of-work performers, including a down-on-his-luck young acrobat named Burt Lancaster. Where history and On the Ropes part company is that the real-life circus toured strictly in the New York and New Jersey area, while I've invented a pilot program for the midwest in order to place the characters where they'd get into the most trouble.

Any chance we'll see Mr. Bloch again as the country heads toward WWII -- and beyond?

I have a good idea of what happens to Fred beyond On the Ropes. I'm not saying just what it is, but people who read between the lines may guess just how much more trouble he's already gotten himself into.

It's a story I'd like to tell someday. And Dan and I have agreed that if we ever re-visit Fred, we won't wait another 25 years before we do it.

Copyright © 2013 Mark London Williams

Mark London Williams wrote the Danger Boy time travel series, and info on his work can be found at marklondonwilliams.com. The first "Danger Boy" books is still a free download, but that might be changing soon. He currently has some truck with zombies, ghosts, undead baseball players and displaced wolves. Mark gets Twittery @mlondonwmz.


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