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Nexus Graphica
by Mark London Williams

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"
High Moon
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) Things Undone
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). High Moon
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) Bob Dylan Revisited
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."

Crumb's Torah

The Book of Genesis illustrated by R. Crumb
The Book of Genesis illustrated by R. Crumb
The Book of Genesis illustrated by R. Crumb
R. Crumb
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....)

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 crazed/wonderful/searching/failing/uplifting/betraying/violent/sexy/atrocious behavior 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 past centuries.

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.

Copyright © 2009 Mark London Williams

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

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