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Monday, December 30, 2019

The Hunting Party (Historical Fiction) (Graphic Novel)

by Pierre Christin (Author), Enki Bilal (Author, Illustrator)  

Publisher: Humanoids Inc (September 15, 2002)  

Softcover, 96 pages  

From the author of the long run Valerian series comes a very different type of story. Set in the 1980s, a group of men of power, each very active in their various Eastern European communist governments, each member states of the Warsaw Pact, come together to honor their Russian patron, Vassily Chevchenko, who has suffered a stroke, become non-verbal, and thus must step down from his position in the politburo. They celebrate their patron through a few days of hunting. Starting first with birds, then stags, then boars, and finally bears. 
To truly understand this book, one must first have at least a cursory understanding of communist political life in Eastern Europe during the first half of the 20th Century; the countries involved, the key players, the deceptions, the brutality, and the endless rounds of purges when men were ground underneath the Soviet machine, forced to confess to non-existent crimes then locked up for slave labor in some Siberian gulag, or killed outright. Many mentions are made of now-footnote-in-history political leaders whose downfall brought sorrow and tragedy to the men in this story.  

The hunt is symbolic of an inhuman political system which routinely eats its young. As the men progress through the days of killing animals, we see each of their personal stories, of the horror they witnessed and the horror they had to commit in order to stay alive. Starting as idealists, ultimately the men had to become greater monsters than those they fought to keep their scalps. We see the communist/socialist lie for what it truly is a never-ending series of murder and violence.  
While the story is dramatic enough, what truly elevates this book is the superb art (as always) by Enki Bilal which captures the darkness, the gloom, and menace of the cold Siberian landscape. Everything is haunted, even during the happy scenes of relation, when the men are enjoying themselves, a menace and gloom shrouds them. The book is worth a look if only for the art.  
For more readings, try books by Rex Hurst. 

Monday, December 23, 2019

The Sun, The Idea, & Story Without Words

by Franz Masereel, David A. Berona (Introduction) 

Publisher: Dover Publications (August 21, 2009)

Softcover, 224 pages

Amazon Listing 

These are reprints of three of Frans Masereel woodcut novels from the 1920s. While inspired by ancient techniques, he also inspired other artists and a new fad of the old craft sprung up in the 1920s. Unfortunately, the Great Depression ended the fad as it ended so many other things. It must be pointed out that these graphic novels came before the advent of Superman, and they are mainly commentaries on the condition of man.  
Many people have an idea that old-time literature was filled with Victorian era attitudes and forced to be a squeaky clean as 1950s Tv. Not so. Sexuality and nudity are openly discussed (or displayed) in these stories.  
from The Idea
The SunMasereel’s second woodblock novel is a take on the ancient myth of Icarus, of a man trying to reach the sun and failing miserably. Though this is set in a “modern” context (modern for the 20’s, it’s fairer to say, industrialized context). What’s interesting is that the author puts himself in the story and all of the action is the result of a dream he is having. Along the way, he tries to reach for the sun people, society in general, drag him down, away from his dreams and ambitions. However, his ultimate failure seems to suggest that the people suppressing him were right to do so. An interesting start, but far from his best work.  
The Idea. In this the author comes up with the titular ideal, personified as a naked woman, and sends it out into the world. Once there this idea (perhaps meaning the naked truth) is mocked by society. They attempt to tame it, to clothe it as something else, and suppress it through the court. She perseveres and is championed by those who need help, who are downcast in society. Despite a constant war on the idea, she survives by expressing herself in print, in newspapers, in music, in film, and on the radio. She succeeds and fails simultaneously. Eventually she returns to her creator, only to find he has created a new idea. She is then replaced and takes her among history.  
from The Idea

Story Without Words, the third woodcut novel is a simple tale about a man who tries to win the love of the woman. She refuses his advances until the man threatens to kill himself, after which she submits and then he discards her. How this story stands out is the use of background imagery to display the man’s various attempts and the woman’s reactions, similar to medieval morality woodcuts to teach the illiterate masses. Again, the story is simple, but also timeless. 

For more readings, try books by Rex Hurst. 

from Story Without Words

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

The Demon (Drama) (Experimental Fiction)

by Hubert Selby Jr.   

Publisher: Penguin Books (August 1, 2011)

Softcover, 288 pages

Amazon Listing

“And with this new consciousness came the pleasure of being able to make a game out of it. At least for now. Someday the killing would have to be a reality, but for now just the contemplation of it exalted him. That was one of the great things about this experience. He could delay the action almost indefinitely, and it added to the excitement. Nurture, pet, and caress the anticipation. That was the thing to do. And he would. He would tantalize himself just as long as possible. Someday the act would be a part of history, but now he would just dangle it in front of himself. He could create his own suspense. And master it!”
This is a sad story of man who achieved much, but couldn't conquer his demons. Many reviews claim that the main character is a sociopath, but this is obviously not the case. The protagonist is much more nuanced than that. He has genuine feelings for his parents, wife, and child. But is obviously suffering from an impulse control disorder which results in severe depression unless the main character indulges in some form of risky behavior. Once done, he is capable of living, the mental tension and anxiety that grows leading up to event is relieved, but never ultimately banished.
Author Hubert Selby, Jr.
The titular demon here is the mental illness afflicting the protagonist. While brilliant in his field, he pays the price for his genius by needing to indulge in increasingly risky behavior. Beginning with compulsive sex, he moves onto banging dirty, possibly diseased women after he married, then kleptomania, burglaries, riding trains like an old-time hobo, and finally murder. But like the old tale of Crom-Cruicak, one can satiate the demon but never ultimately satisfy it. The protagonist is no exception and suffers the ultimate penalty.
What may turn some readers off is the stream-of-consciousness writing style that plays fast and loose with punctuation, paragraph formation, and any actual punctuation you might like. Typical of the author's style, this formation is reflexive of the protagonist's mental state and becomes increasingly erratic the further he dips into his illness. Some critics claims that this style is weird simply for its own sake, but I found it consistent with the context of the book.
The only negative part is that the book tends to drag about a third of the way through. About twenty five pages could've easily been jettisoned without loss, and it would've kicked up the momentum. However, once the protagonist starts stealing the story steers right back on track.
For more readings, try books by Rex Hurst. 

Monday, December 16, 2019

The Smell of Starving Boys (Western) (Graphic Novel)

by Frederik Peeters & Loo Hui Phang 

Publisher: SelfMadeHero; First Edition edition (December 5, 2017)

Hardcover, 112 pages

Amazon Listing  

The term "smell of starving boys" refers to sexual starvation among young homosexuals. Not sure if this term exists beyond the confines of this book, but it isn't a body horror graphic novel if that was what you were looking for.
This is a Western that in a way capsulizes much of the mythology of the old west. Three figures with desperate pasts go deep into territories West of the Mississippi River. Their exploration is as much about running away from the past as it is forging a new future. In the end, much of their activities are based on whether or not they want to help recreate the Eastern society they are running from.

There are your standard Western elements: stolen horses, campfires, bounty hunters, stampedes, and Indian attacks; but it also transcends above the material. There is a unique spiritual element to the story with is strange and compelling, with an open ended conclusion.
And a good deal of that transcendence stems from the incredible artwork. It has a rolling quality colored to perfection to capture the golden nostalgia of a West that never was. It reminds me of Mobius's Blueberry series in its simplicity and complexity mingled perfectly together.
For more readings, try books by Rex Hurst. 

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Torture Garden (Drama)

by Octave Mirbeau (Author), Michael Richardson (Translator), Brian Stableford (Introduction)

Publisher: Dedalus Ltd; new edition edition (July 15, 2019)

Softcover, 205 pages

Amazon Listing 

“Come, dear ones, come more quickly. Where you’re going there is even more pain, more torture, more blood flowing and dripping to the ground, more contorted and torn bodies at their last gasp on iron tables, more cut open flesh swaying from the gallow’s rope, more horror and more hell. Come, my loves, come, with lips together and hand in hand. Look among the leaves and the latticework, look at the infernal diorama as it unfolds and at the diabolical festival of death.”
This work has been compared to that of the Marquis De Sade, having read all of De Sade’s writings I can assure you that it is not. It is De Sade light and much better written than most of De Sade’s tales. However several of the themes of the Marquis’ work are present in this twisted tale. In the wake of the Dreyfus affair, much of French literature turned to discussing the hypocrisy of Western civilization. About how many decry acts which they themselves regularly perform. About how the worst always crawl to the top, but must maintain airs of absolute respectability.
However, while De Sade would be content with this simple statement and show constant horrific examples ad nauseam, the author goes beyond and shows the extreme opposite and shows the land of China (this would be the last few decades of Imperial China) as one who openly embraces sex and violence as a matter of course and a natural part of human behavior. The flip sides seems to be much worse than the stuffy European way of life.
Author Octave Mirabeau
The epitome of this is shown in the character of Clara, "fairy of mass graves, angel of decomposition and decay". She is an extreme example of a fin-de-si├Ęcle (femme fatale), an all-powerful near-necrophilia who treats men as puppets and enjoys their humiliation. Sadistic and morbid, she experiences an intense and ever growing sexual pleasure on viewing elaborate executions, whose art was perfected by China, as opposed to industrial and technological massacres, which were practiced on a large scale in Europe without any concern for art, i.e. the guillotine (something that De Sade laments as well). She is a monster allowed to give full flight to her perversions in this horrible place.
The plot is fairly simple. A French politician's dirty trickster is sent on a pseudo-scientific expedition to collect seaweed in order to discover the origin of life. In reality, he is being put out of the way as he has become a potential embarrassment to the politician. He quickly abandons his pursuits when he falls under the spell of Clara, an English woman, who wraps him around her little finger. For over two years, he goes back and forth, until finally she takes him to the Torture Gardens of China, where scenes of great floral beauty are displayed amongst the horrible death, torture, and humiliations of condemned prisoners.
 For more readings, try books by Rex Hurst. 

Monday, December 9, 2019

The Atrocity Exhibition (Experimental Ficton)

by J. G. Ballard 

Publisher: Flamingo; 60064th edition (May 21, 2004)

Softcover, 192 pages.

Amazon Listing

“Impossible Room: In the dim light he lay on the floor of the room. A perfect cube, its walls and ceilings were formed by what seemed to be a series of cinema screens. Projected on in was a close up of Nurse Nagamatzu, her mouth, three feet across, moving silently as she spoke in slow motion. Like a cloud, the giant head moved up the wall behind him, then passed across the ceiling and down the opposite corner.  Later the inclined, pensive face of Dr. Nathan appeared, rising from the floor until it filled three walls and the ceiling, a sow mouthing monster.”
To call this book a novel may be a bit of a misnomer. It may be a series of interconnected short stories. It may be, as the author claims, a number of “condensed novels”. Or they may be a series of short vignettes under a blanket tarp. What it can be clearly called is, “experimental fiction”. If you’re not interested in a book that plays with forms, themes, functions, and reality, then you will not want to read this book.
If you are worried about things like plot or character development then you are reading the wrong book. There is no clear beginning or end to the book, and it does not follow any of the standard novel conventions. The main character, Talbert (?) changes name with each chapter, just as his role and his visions of the world around him seem to change constantly. If you insist on a plot, then you must look on it as a man having a series of nervous breakdowns in a mental hospital, or a man who is manipulating reality to cause World War Three.
If you are wondering how such a book became an underground classic, it's all due to shock value. Like Gravity’s Rainbow and Naked Lunch, the unconventional prose is riddled with sexually explicit descriptions and activities. So much was packed in that the book was brought up on various obscenity charges and banned in a host of countries, thus immortalizing it.
The author himself suggest reading it by randomly flipping pages and only taking in those snapshot scenes which catch the eye. This might be the best way, as going through it sequentially is a chore. Another flaw is that this is an obviously boomer book to appeal to the boomer generation. Constant references to people, images, and events from the sixties dates the book severely. While older, well read, people will recognize most of them, but you’d be surprised how many have forgotten them completely.
The book has seen various publications over the years, and various parts have been printed in magazines. Each addition seems to add a little to the whole of the book. Every “chapter” is followed by annotations (many of which are more interesting than the actual text), while the RE/Search edition added a series of stimulating photographs and illustrations. So you’re exact experience with this book will differ greatly depending on which edition you read.
 For more readings, try books by Rex Hurst. 

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

G.I. JOE: A Real American Hero, Vol. 23 - Artificial Intelligence (War) (Graphic Novel)

by Larry Hama & Netho Diaz   

Published: IDW Publishing (October 22, 2019)

Softcover, 120 pages

Amazon Listing 

Another great collection of GI Joe: A Real American Hero. This volume brings together issues 261 - 265. The plots are all over the place here. We begin with Destro and the Baroness's continued assault on Revanche and the cybernetic Blue Ninjas which is a story that should've been shelved twenty issues ago. They are confronted with Alpha 001, the prime unit and are mentally taken over by other creature, which then goes on to infect many more iron grenadiers. The plot is worn thin with the unstoppable cybernetic monster that constantly rebuilds and grows bigger. X-Men did it better with the Sentinel Master Mold.
As this is going on, the Joe's are still rescuing UN aid workers from a war torn Middle Eastern country. This story expresses everything the Joe's are about. A small tactical force of highly trained personally fighting the good fight over seemingly overwhelming odd, but still managing to pull through.

The story is being set up for an attempt by Cobra Commander to kidnap and subvert Snake Eyes via the brainwave scanner (who we know is dead, but has been replaced by Sean Collins aka Throwdown, though the Cobras don't know this).
The set up to this brings back a lot of old characters: The October Guard- the old Soviet equivalent of the Joe's. Crystal Ball, the Cobra mesmerist, who I believe only ever appeared in one issue of A Real American hero. He has been working as a sleazy fortune teller since being booted from Cobra. Last but not least, Zartan, Zarana, Zandar and the entire Dreadnok crew (even Zanzibar) reappear to take on Cobra.
The book ends on a bittersweet note with a special Memorial Day tribute to all of the fallen characters in the series. To those unfamiliar with the whole series, a lot of characters will be mentioned that you might not have heard of. A third of the dead come from the vastly unpopular G.I Battleforce 2000 which sold so poorly Larry Hama was given permission to wipe out the whole squad. This is excellent fan service however and a lot of old characters are brought up. Except for the dead Cobras as they apparently don't mourn the dead.
My only fan-boy gripe is that when the Arisinkage clan is honoring their dead members: the Hard Master and the Soft Master, they forgot to include the Blind Master who was killed by Zartan. A small oversight, but it bugged me.
 For more readings, try books by Rex Hurst. 

Monday, December 2, 2019

Looking Outward: The Federal Prison System from the Inside (History) (True Crime)

by Robert F. Stroud  
Publisher: Recipe Publishers; First edition (November 19, 2013)
Softcover, 286 pages
Amazon Listing

“It is impossible to consider the problems involved in prison management without having some knowledge of the various elements entering into the prison population, and the population of Federal prisons has always borne a distinct relationship to the peculiar nature of Federal offences. Back at the turn of the century the principal Federal crimes were: counterfeiting; smuggling cloth, chinamen, and opium: robbery of Post Offices and mails in different forms, such as train robbery, Post Office burglary, and various forms of pilfering from the mails; mail fraud; violation of the National Banking Laws; dereliction in office, principally of postal employees; and violations of the liquor laws.”
This is the prison memoir of Robert F. Stroud, the famous Birdman of Alcatraz - probably the most famous prisoner in the history of the United States. Considering that Stroud died in 1963, this publication is long overdue.
For those who are unaware (and Stroud glosses over certain unflattering facts in his biography). Originally from Seattle, Stroud ran away from his abusive father at the age of 13, and by the time he was 18, he had become a pimp in the Alaska Territory. In January 1909, he shot and killed a bartender who attacked his mistress, a crime for which he was sentenced to 12 years. He gained a reputation as a dangerous inmate who frequently had confrontations with fellow inmates and staff, and in 1916, he stabbed and killed a guard. Sentenced to be executed, the verdict was commuted to life imprisonment by Woodrow Wilson.

Original Script for the novel in longhand
Imprisoned at Leavenworth, he began raising pigeons in order to keep his sanity. The prison was under the congregate system where prisoners worked during the day in groups and were kept in solitary confinement at night, with enforced silence at all times. He became famous for writing a book on the various diseases he discovered in birds and various cures he uncovered.
This book, however, is on the Federal prison system in the United States, its history and development, focusing specifically on his first two places of incarceration: Leavenworth and McNeil Island. He gives detailed accounts of their history, their policies, the type of men who ran them, food, work, and other daily routines. He also gives various anecdotes of things he witnessed while imprisoned. Violence and homosexuality are discussed in a matter of fact notion. His views on it are that if a man in confined to a place where there are nothing but men, it is a natural occurrence. He also mentions the practice was common enough in rural Alaska where the ratio of men to women was 25 to 1. All in all, it is an interesting first hand read of a prison system that has become defunct.
Author Robert F. Stroud
While many of the facts check out, Stroud himself is quite an unreliable narrator. First, as he readily admits, most of the information comes from memory, but he also admits when he cannot remember a fact or might be misremembering it. Secondly, he often recounts conversations to which he himself was not privy and relies on hearsay to fill in the gaps. Third, as many people around him have pointed out, Stroud was something of a sociopath and narcissist. He constantly refers to himself in the third person as “The Writer” and never admits to making a mistake. He doesn’t dispute his crimes, but only talks about them in flat factual statements. “This is what I did. I have no opinion on it.” In short, he comes across as one of those people who could only thrive in a heavily ordered and structured system like prison.
This was meant to be book one of four on the Federal penal system, however only this one has been published and since it came out in 2013, I don’t think the rest will be forthcoming. The only way to see them, as far as I know, is where they are warehoused- The Missouri State Special Collections archives. The reasons for why no more books have been forthcoming may be legal, but possibly financial.
The men who produced this book, obviously don’t have much experience in formatting, and didn’t bother to learn or correct their errors as this is one of the most inept book formatting jobs I’ve seen- even for independent publishers. There are numerous typos (but only in the first 20 pages to be fair), the type face is small, printed in single space with a blank line between paragraphs (almost military style) and often paragraphs would break up mid-sentence. Very poorly put together.
 For more readings, try books by Rex Hurst. 

Robert Stroud when he first interred into Federal Prison