Weighty Tomes ii

Heather Ann Thompson’s “Blood on the Water,” a history of the rebellion at Attica Prison in 1971 holds “weight” of a different nature.
Thompson is a dogged researcher, who unearthed condemnatory material which the State of New York had buried for decades – and reburied after her discovery. She is also a committed partisan, who does not hide behind “objectivity” to keep the conclusions she has drawn from the page. In fact, she swings them like a mace. Her story is of pestilential racism, sadistic cruelty, and governmental – indeed societal – moral rot.
There were times I wished Thompson was less reliant on adverbs and adjectives, more interested in character development, more adept (especially when her narrative moves into courtrooms) at rendering scenes dramatically. But then I put these wishes aside. I thought they were motivated by a desire to see the other side to the story presented; but, really, I realized, was there another side? The one she documented was so compelling and complete.
I’ve tried to think of a single example of worse America-upon-Americans horror in the last 70 years and come up short. (According to Wikipedia, since the Civil War, Attica was topped only by a massacre of miners in the 1920s.) From Thompson’s description of the toxic conditions under which the inmates lived, through the gratuitous homicidal assault upon them, when troopers killed 33 prisoners and nine of their hostages, to the extermination-camp quality tortures inflicted upon the survivors, all blanketed by the intrigues, cover-ups, and betrayals designed to smother truth in its crib and cut justice’s throat.
Well, “justice.” After this read, one spits the word. Horror upon horror. Darkness within darkness. Maybe the worst part comes when Thompson carries her story to the present day. Blatant lies voiced by authorities and rebroadcast by the media about what Thompson terms “prisoner barbarism” at Attica fueled “an anti-civil-rights and anti-rehabilitation ethos.” Being “tough-on-crime” became as necessary to candidates for public office as deep-pocketed donors. The result has been more prisons built, people imprisoned, mandatory minimum sentences lengthened, the number of capital crimes increased. By 2000, New York state alone had six times as many people in prison as it had in 1971. And as before, inmates suffered from overcrowding, poor food, poor medical treatment, brutal treatment, with less recreational activities, fewer educational programs and increased barriers keeping them from lawyers and the courts.
One’s senses practically shut down. They run, as if, from the carving knife.

Weighty Tomes (i.)

If you are thinking of a gift for someone recovering from open heart surgery, keep in mind he would not be able to lift Chris Ware’s “Monograph” for weeks. In fact, this nearly nine-pound unbouncing baby, which stretches an unwieldy 18″ by 13″, may not make a good choice for anyone inclined to reading while lying in bed. Lose grip for an instance; you risk a pugged nose or punctured spleen.
Though none of his earlier works needed similar “Customer Warning” labels, Ware has never been overly reader friendly. Even in his formative “Acme Novelty Library” days, I often abandoned entire two-page spreads because no matter what effort I put into adjusting my bi-focals, his type size selection seemed to parachute-drop me into the most impenetrable jungles of an optometrist’s vision-testing charts.
While Ware’s characters tend to inhabit a range of human experiences available within walking distance of dismal big city apartment buildings or well-trimmed suburban lawns, and feelings generally capturable by 20 shades of gray – whine-producing self-pity, misery, and despair – his readers benefit from surprising moments of humor, tenderness and compassion and startling flights of fantasy, time-shift and surprise. The magic of creativity cause the mundane and dreary to sparkle.
Ware is also unmatched in his ability to transform the commonality of page composition into a wonderland. The tracking of his thoughts and his characters’ adventures across it becomes a fun ride of unanticipated possibilities for those of us with more boxed-in imaginations. We spin and whirl and chuckle. Once in a while, he plunks a mini-comic in the middle of a page like a prize inside Crackerjacks.

“Monograph,” a retrospective look at Ware’s life and career, takes self-deprecation for someone so honored to an almost Oh-come-off-it! level. (I mean, you think Mr. Potatohead would get a book so freaking humongous?) “Why,” he wonders, “would a writer of (Zadie Smith”s) caliber, intelligence and humanity… bother to give me the time of day.” “I awoke every day,” he writes, “with a paralyzing pain of panic, fear and death.” He notes his “overwhelming self-doubt,” “stupid” mistakes, “embarrassing words,” “stories so bad there’s no rescuing them,” and “lack of knowledge, artistic sophistication and inadequate understanding of how the world actually works.” At the same time he fills 275 pages with the drawings, comics, dolls, toys, dioramas, flip books, store signs, “New Yorker” covers, sheet music, storefront designs, sketch books, and teaching materials, works with paper, wood, canvas, clay, brass, and glass that establish him as one of the major creators of his time. He has ventured into animation, film, opera, radio, and TV. And he mentions a happy marriage, proud parenthood, and solid relationship with friends and colleagues that might be expected to ripple hope across any gloomy pond. Still, he writes, “death may be the single greatest thing that ever happens to us.”
Well, it certainly seems to be the one that lasts the longest.

For me, someone who is, as I often offer as a disclaimer to readers, “a word, not a picture person,” “Monograph” is most rewarding when Ware delineates his thinking about his choice of art form. In these passages, he shows an interest in connection, a “We’re-all-in-this” humanity, that might otherwise have been overlooked. Comics, he writes, represent “the way we remember life itself,” words and pictures occurring to us at the same time, duplicating “memory and consciousness,” “recomposing our lives from ever-decomposing pieces and stories.” “(U)ltimately, we’re all working on our own graphic novels of our lives…,” he says, “trying to understand, feel through and hopefully empathize with others as well as with ourselves.”
He seems a nice fellow. One can be glad for his success and thankful he has been able to pursue and document his vision.
Even if it might smack us on the nose

Adventures in Marketing: Week 103

No sales.
No conversations.
No remarks.

In other news…
1.) Word has reached me that a review of “The Schiz” – its first – is in the works. The prospective reviewer, an on-line pal since glory days of the nail-the-butchered-corpse-to-the-wall
TCJ Message Board, knows large chunks of my oeuvre, so his take should be fun. He promises a “Levin-style… digressing all over the maps (and sometimes uncharted waters)…” Stay tuned.
2.) The second monthly reading at the café suffered a 40% drop in attendance (25 to 15), but a good time was had by all. (Our audiences still seem composed of friends of the readers, and these two shared an overlapping pool.) The average age of the assembled was about 75 and the average complexion white. Gender was split.
One woman read from novels she’d written based on time spent living in England and on time spent sailing the South Pacific. The other read about the two years she spent living and working in a Kentucky mining town, with dialogue rendered in dialect and snatches of Appalachian folk songs a capella.
The generally expressed feeling was “What a good idea!” One veteran of the ‘60s Village Folk scene thanked me for restoring a sense of “Bohemia” to the place – a term I hadn’t heard in conversation in a while.
My main thought was, There sure are a lot of deep and interesting people at this little cafe.

Adventures in Marketing: Week 102

Sold two “Cheesesteaks,” one old, one new.
The first, the old, went to a 30-something hard-hatted construction worker from the block-wide, seven-story building UC is putting up across the street from the café. He’d checked me out a couple weeks ago and said he’d be back when he had cash on him. A man of his word. The second book, the new, went to a smiling, white-haired woman, in an unbuttoned orange shirt over a white-tee, who’d stopped by the café while visiting a friend who’d recently moved into the neighborhood.
That was the second day I’d had both “Cheesesteaks” on my table. I’d also added little, propped-up, hand-written price tags by each book to alert passers-by that this was a commercial operation, not just an art installation – and a modestly scaled one.

This Writing Life (con.)

When I begsn, the cartoonist was eager to be profiled.
But there was a delay with the magazine that was to publish it. Like three years, so far, and counting.
And when I wanted to publish it elsewhere, the editor said, “You can’t.”
And I was, “Huh? We don’t have a contract. You haven’t paid me anything.”
So he backed off, and another magazine grabbed it.
But by then the cartoonist seemed to have lost interest. At least he didn’t respond to e-mails from me or the new editor asking for art to illustrate the article.
We decided on “fair use.” I took a package – two books, two comix – and a poster inside a tube – to the USPO to send the art director outside Vancouver (WA).
The clerk looked in her magazine. “This address does not exist.”
I e-mailed the A.D. He confirmed his address. In fact, he said he was sitting in it.
I went for “Priority.” Two-day delivery.
Eleven days later, no one had it. The tracking number said, “Unable to deliver.”
I went back to the post office. Another clerk looked in his machine. “Unable to deliver,” he said.
“Well, why hasn’t it come back to me?” I said, figuring to give Fed Ex a shot.
“Sometimes the return takes a long time,” he said. He gave me an 800-number. It would connect me to the branch for the A.D.’s zip code. “They can make sure it’s not lying around there someplacde.”
Your tax dollars at work, I thought.
Meanwhile, we grabbed images off the internet.

BABF: Day 2

BABF: Day 2
Two things improved.
Less wind, so not as cold.
Left three hours early, not two.
Sales-wise, not so much.

Sold a Wilson matchbook to a fellow who’d worked on “Sponge Bob Comics.” True, he passed on my books to buy it, which hurt my bottom line, but since Wilson gets the proceeds, it was good for my karma.)
Sold a “Huge” (art/story by Aaron Lange, Afterward by me) to a fellow who promised he was 18. (If he was – and not undercover – everything is kosher.)
Sold a “Best Ride” to the owner of one of the cafés which lets me sell there. (He wanted something for his Free Books shelf, so I steered him there, since it is my least expensive number.)
Ended with an “Outlaws, Rebels…” to a cartoonist-savvy editor. (I threw in a “Huge” gratis, when he showed interest in it.
As for the day’s best dialogue…
1.) “You’re competing with Alice Waters. She’s talking about peanut butter.”
2.) “I’m 86. What would you suggest about publishing?” (No, I did not suggest, “Don’t wait much longer.”)
3.) “Sauce or gravy?” (My interrogator seemed to believe this had something to do with my being from Philadelphia.)
4.) “Info booth. Can you direct me?”
5.) “I’m not a good customer. I don’t have any money with me.”
6.) “I’m scanning with my eyes.”
7.) “If I bought every book I wanted to read, I’d have no place to live.”
I also picked up a “fascinating” a “really interesting” and a “pretty cool” and a most-frequently (thrice) asked question: “What inspired you?”
When we were home, Adele said, “Look on the bright side. At least we din’t have to go to Larkspur or Rohnert Park.” “But if it was in in Larkspur or Rohnert Park,” I said, “we wouldn’t have gone.”

Bay Area Book Fair: Day One

The biggest financial disaster since Lehman Brothers collapsed.
The opportunity to mingle with members of the reading public lost in the worst weather since Frnaklin’s fourth arctic expedition.
Okay, I’m out of metaphors.
Now some facts.
Sold two books, a “Most Outrageous” (to a comix world acquaintance) and a “Cheesesteak” (to a legal world one). I also bought two, a volume of poetry and a short story collection, which we turned out to already have. Two authors gave Adele and I books (one poetry, one prose), and we gave them each a “Best Ride.” (I also sold two over-sized match books, designed and illustrated by S. Clay Wilson for a bar in Chicago, and his special needs trust will get all of the proceeds there.)
To add to my instruction in humility, I was out-grossed by my table-mate, a 12-year-old. Her book is about a pumpkin, and she’d written it when she was 10.
Best Remarks Directed to Me by Non-Buyers:
1. “It looks like fun, but Steve wants me to go.”
2. “I wasn’t aware of this issue.”
3. “It’s been a pleasure.”
4. “Who knew that instigating disasters would be more profitable than liquidating them.”
5. “You have an interesting….”
6 “I was on the staff of the “Berkeley Barb.”
7. “I bought that,” indicating “Pirates and the Mouse.”
“What’d you think of it?”
“I haven’t read it.”
8. “Cool. Very cool.”
We left two hours early.

Adventures in Marketing: Week 101

Since I’ll be at BABF this weekend, sure to be a story in itself — if not a saga — I decided to run this week’s entry early.

One “Cheesesteak” sold. (Also a “Not today” and a “Good luck” collected.)

The sale…

As readers may recall, my health club is connected to a hotel. So I’m working out, dressed in not-walking-around garb of black shorts, black skull cap, and cut-down football jersey (“Who’s 27?” someone once asked me. “Me,” I said), and someone says “BIOB!”

“It’s Mike!” he says. “Friends’ Central!”

Now the accent is definite Philadelphia, and I can practically feel my brain flipping through every face it knew in high school, like they were on a deck of cards, adding 50 – 60 years, and… ZERO.

Finally he admits he’s pulling my leg. His words exactly. “Pulling your leg.” We had met the year before in the locker room when he’d he’d asked me a question. I’d recognized his accent and given him a “Cheesesteak.” Now he was back, visiting a daughter again and wanted to buy a copy for a friend.

The friend, Overbrook ’65, had been a straight “E” student, now works, if you can believe it, as a wedding singer.

Who says I don’t have wide marketing potential.

Adventures in Marketing: Week 100

Sold no books.
But I gave away 11 “Best Ride”s at my Café Venne reading. (I did not read from it, but from a story in which it factored.) “Couldn’t get bobbleheads in time,” I quipped, “and the ‘Strength in Numbers’ t-shirts had been spoken for.” (I also gave away eight guitar picks, but that’s a different story.)
The reading was lotsa fun. We drew 25-30 people, one-third invited by me, one-third invited by my co-reader/co-organizer, the magnificent Yvonne, one-third past-or-present morning regulars at the café, who knew one or both of us. (Some brought relatives or friends.) Only one walk-in arrived, but she was someone who knew me and saw my name on the flyer posted on the door.
I think the event was enjoyed by all. The only suggestion otherwise came the next morning when I overheard someone say to a fellow who hadn’t been there, “The audience was so old, half of it fell asleep.” I think she over-stated the situation. I only saw one person fall asleep, and she is in her mid-80s and receives chemo-, so she’s entitled. (She was also seated next to the woman who reported and may have fallen on her shoulder, which would certainly have colored her experience.)
Haven’t heard from management how business went (but I counted two espressos, three teas, a glass of wine, and a slice of cake ordered). Also haven’t heard how the hotel guests, of which the café is a part and to which there is only one shared entrance, felt about schlepping through the audience (sleeping or not) to get to and from their rooms. Pain in the ass or charming Berkeley native life.

Adventures in Marketing: Weeks 98/99

First, an apology.
I missed last week because a burglar/literary critic made off with my laptop.
I had been planning to update new readers/FB “friends” with what I’d been doing anyway, and that is, since I began self-publishing, to sit in a café with a stack of my books and a sign of a Checkered Demon (drawn by legendary UG cartoonist S. Clay Wilson) saying “Buy Bob’s Books!” Then each week, I would report on sales or other notable encounters. A post-burglary development is that, when tidying my study, I came across an old “New Yorker” cartoon of a disheveled fellow standing on a corner, his hat set at his feet for donations, and a sign “Meet the Author, which I have added to my presentation.
In fact, I believe it was this cartoon that caught the eye of a cute five-or-six year old girl.
“Wanna buy a book?” I said.
That got me a big smile.
“You’re too young,” I said. “Come back in a few years.”
That got a smile from her mother.

Otherwise, one check in the mail for a “Cheesesreak” 2d ed., from a correspondent in the comic world.
And two copies of it and of “The Schiz” picked up by the burglar, but since they happened to be in the shoulder bag within which he carried off my laptop, I can’t put this down to editorial choice.
Before all of this I’d been running into a spate of “Maybe next time” and “I’ll think about it” and “I’m traveling light”s at the café.
My favorite was young woman – probably a grad student in one of the sciences, from China – jean jacket, jeans, over-sized glasses – who picked up a “Cheesesteak” and said, “About food?”
“A memoir about growing up in West Philadelphia,” I said.
“Your story? Very cool.”
“Take a look. Ask a question.”
“Maybe next time.”
I figure “Very cool,” “Maybe next time” are two handy expressions to have in English.