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Monday, April 29, 2019

Maus: A Survivor's Tale. My Father Bleeds History, Chapter 4 - a Review

Maus: A Survivor's Tale. My Father Bleeds History (1986)  
"The Noose Tightens" - Volume 1, Chapter 4  
Art Spiegelman

Each time I read Maus, it's as if I am coming to it for the first time. Art Spiegelman's work holds a spell over me - it grabs me and yanks me into the thick of the history, and of the relationships, and I am awash in it as new. I never read this story and do not find something that I interpret a different way, or even see or think about for the first time. My re-read for these reviews has been no different. I continue to read Holocaust literature, as well as discuss Holocaust history and pedagogy with colleagues. Those interactions serve to always shine new light on other resources.

I want to get right to the 100-Word Review, and then move forward with some thoughts about this chapter.
In “The Noose Tightens”, we begin to get the sense that Vladek and his family have reached a point of no return. From the beginning of the chapter to its end, many family members will be lost, and the grip of the Nazis on every aspect of the lives of the Spiegelmans and the Zylberbergs will constrict their daily existence - food, property, movement. Additionally, the sense we’d gotten before that Art and Vladek share a strained relationship in the present will only deepen as Vladek ages. And Art’s mother, Anja? A mystery concerning her post-War writings surfaces.

The Good: I've mentioned earlier in this series that I sometimes feel a little personally tense when Vladek is on screen in the present, talking with Art. Their relationship is toxic - not on the surface, but always bubbling just below. Art is never good enough for Vladek, Vladek's OCD tendencies irritates Art, and Vladek's second wife, Mala (Art's stepmother) seems always caught somewhere on the periphery, yet smack in the middle. For three people, it's a houseful of dysfunction. This chapter begins that way, and in only one page, we feel Vladek's idiosyncrasies at the fore. But you know what? This isn't some throwaway vignette... Rather, it's a table-setting of the events that are about to be documented.

Vladek, once Art's gotten his mind on the events of 1940 and shortly after Vladek's release from the German POW camp, begins to spin a tale of loss - loss of rights, of property, of mobility, and eventually of life. I want to give a short history lesson before moving forward, so readers not fully in tune with German persecutions against Jews can get a sense of how this noose was indeed tightening. The following timeline, which details requirements for German Jews, should spell that out clearly:
1933: All non-Aryan civil servants forcibly retired; kosher butchering outlawed; German nationality can be revoked from those considered “undesirable”.
1934: Jewish newspapers can no longer be sold in the streets.
1935: Jews deprived of the status of citizenship; marriage and sexual relations between Jews and Aryans forbidden; Jews no longer have the right to vote.
1937:  Passports for Jews for travel abroad are greatly restricted.
1938:  Jews must carry identification papers and Jewish passports are marked with a “J”; Jews may no longer own or bear firearms; Jews may no longer head businesses; Jews may no longer attend plays, concerts, etc; all Jewish children are moved to Jewish schools; all Jewish businesses are shut down; Jews may no longer be in certain places at certain times; Jews must hand over drivers’ licenses and car registrations; Jews must sell their businesses and hand over securities and jewels; Jews may no longer attend universities.
1939:  Jews must follow curfews.
1940:  Jews may no longer have phones; German Jews begin being taken into “protective custody” = deported to concentration camps.
1941:  Jews in Germany must wear the yellow Star of David on their outermost garments; Jews may not leave their hometown without permission from the police; Jews may no longer use public telephones.
1942:  Jews are forbidden to – subscribe to newspapers; keep dogs, cats, birds, etc; keep electrical equipment including typewriters; own bicycles; buy meat, eggs, or milk; use public transportation; attend school.

I want to emphasize that the timeline above would not have applied to Polish Jews; in many cases, these restrictions would have come after the September 1, 1939 invasion that began World War II. From that point, the restrictions on that list would have come like a whirlwind. That makes the story Vladek spins all the more incredible. If we use the list above as a blueprint, then following Vladek's narration we see:
  • Restrictions on food acquisition
  • Restrictions on work, or job availability
  • Black market activities to meet basic human needs through trade and/or money acquisition
  • Hiding property from the Nazis
  • Roundups - sometimes randomly, paperwork or not a non-factor
  • Questions of hiding children - this could have meant permanent separation
  • Concentration into ghettos
  • Collective responsibility and/or death as a deterrent to certain activities or behaviors
  • Hiding people as a way to circumvent Nazi requests
  • Confiscation of Jewish property
  • Selections by the Nazis of Jews for relocation; this almost always meant deportation to the killing centers
  • "Choiceless choices"
The page samples I've provided should move you through the story, providing a bit more details. Suffice it to say, and I used this term in last month's review, the downward spiral has begun, and is now moving rather quickly.

Other things that I really liked about this chapter include the cutaway of the hiding place for Mrs. Zylberberg's parents, the detailed images of the town square, and of the selection in the stadium. As we move forward, we'll see that Art Spiegelman has taken great pains to not only document his father's story, but to depict it with historical detail and accurately. 

The Bad: The other element that dominates this chapter, though only mentioned twice, is the alleged presence of diaries written by Art's mother Anja. Vladek mentions it somewhat offhand, and Art nearly leaps from his seat. But Vladek quickly qualifies the remark as second versions of her diaries - the originals did not survive the war - and then changes the subject. Near the end of the chapter, as Vladek has fallen asleep, Art makes a comment to Mala about Anja's writings. Mala says she's never seen them, but Art looks anyway. This is a painful episode, and unfortunately foreshadows a grave scene coming later in this volume. It's tough to watch, every time I read it. And when I read it aloud to my students, it seems to carry even more weight.

The Ugly: Whenever you think things have gotten bad, know that they will be soon getting worse. I'm reminded of a line spoken three times in Schindler's List - "The worst is over now." But it never was. There was always a deeper depth to be sunk toward.

Thursday, April 25, 2019

The Black-and-White Work of Val Mayerik

What's your experience with Val Mayerik? Mine comes largely from the B&W "Frankenstein 1974" series, when Marvel decided it would be a good idea to bring the Monster into then-present continuity. Of course, that would give us a Marvel Team-Up with the Amazing Spider-Man, but also create a generally odd situation. But I digress...

Mayerik also made his presence felt in Savage Sword of Conan, and had a history with Howard the Duck. How's that for variety?

Anyway, enjoy these samples of his work - and thanks to all those spaces around the World Wide Web who host the images I've provided here today.

Monday, April 22, 2019

The Boys from Boneville: Bone 1 - a Review

Bone #1 (July 1991)
"Out from Boneville" (alternate title, from the collected edition, "The Map")
Jeff Smith

I was introduced to Bone by my friend Don Kramer many years ago. Don told me I had to check it out, that I'd love it. He said it was cute and funny, like a classic Disney cartoon. He wasn't wrong. I did my best to scare up whatever issues I could, and it was helpful that the book's popularity kept it in perpetual reprintings. But last year I finally took the plunge and bought the massive trade paperback, Bone: The Complete Cartoon Epic in One Volume. And I am very glad I did that. It is indeed an epic, clocking in at over 1300 pages. And heavy? It's actually sort of an unwieldy book to read, as it's super chunky. But if you've never taken the time to check this series out, hopefully today I can change your mind and set you on the proper path to enlightenment!

As per the way I do things around here, let's get rolling with the...

100-Word Review:
We open with the three Bone cousins - Fone, Phoney, and Smiley - distressed and far from home. Phoney Bone had been run out of town on a rail for numerous get-rich-quick scams; the villagers were having none of it. Now lost in the desert mountains and without water, the cousins use two maps - neither of them good - to try to figure their next step. But a locust swarm scatters them and leads to separation. It also leads Fone Bone to an encounter with the dreaded Rat Creatures, and meeting with their enemy, the Red Dragon. But what new adventures lay in the Valley?
The Good: Running over the story again for this review was most likely my 4th or 5th reading of the material, and it's still just as warm, fuzzy, and funny as it was the first time. Jeff Smith crafted characters who would immediately endear themselves to the readers, and who we came to care about as the adventures unfolded. There's a part of me that wants to switch this category and call it "the great".

What I think I like best about this inaugural issue is that it mixes some character development (well, actually character revelations) with cast introductions and foreshadowing - all deftly delivered. We have the Bone cousins lost, we see distinct personalities from each of the three, there is peril in the forms of the locusts, the separation of the cousins, and in the Rat Creatures, a potential savior in the Red Dragon, and a mystery person on the yet-to-be seen Thorn. And by deftly delivered, I specifically refer to two situations in this first issue:


The Bone cousins are at once united, but at the same time antagonistic toward one another. It's pretty obvious that Phoney Bone gets into trouble on a regular basis and that Fone and Smiley sometimes have to bail him out. It's also known from the start that Smiley sure doesn't mind sticking the knife in, so to speak, when he gets a chance. He's not letting Phoney off the hook for whatever shenanigans forced them out of town this time, or for past transgressions. Fone seems to be the leader, and is established quickly as the main character. We find him likeable, resourceful, and that we want to follow these adventures as they begin to unfold. Ted the bug, who we also meet, seems like he'll be a fun sidekick.

The other stroke of genius was to paint the Rat Creatures as more than just evil villains. Those guys are funny! Jeff Smith gives them depth that puts them up alongside any of the great bad guys of comics or cinema. Sure, they're pretty singularly focused on eating Fone Bone, but they're funny in trying to pull it off. If they had henchmen, they'd almost give off a Batman '66 vibe. And foreshadowing that the Red Dragon is some sort of enemy even to the Rat Creatures,  makes the reader wonder if he's actually benevolent toward Fone Bone, or merely against the Rat Creatures.

Lastly, Jeff Smith is quite a storyteller in terms of sequential art. This issue really moved; the art was consistent (Bone cousins the same size throughout, and distinguishable from one another), there were backgrounds in almost all the panels, and a couple of times Smith let his pictures do the talking, eschewing any dialogue. The story ended in a cliffhanger of sorts, with the mystery of Thorn's identity, the lost cousins, and a heaping helping of snow - of which Ted had warned against. Great stuff, and I'm sure back in 1991 readers were anxiously awaiting the second issue!

The Bad: Zero here. Well, wait - I guess I have a comment on subsequent color reprintings of this series. I like what I've seen - in the case of Bone, computerized coloring gives it a rich, storybook feel. I am generally not a fan of computer coloring. I have liked it in the trade paperback for Marvel's Tales of Asgard series - again, the source material is somewhat storybook in nature, so I think it works. More action-oriented four-color or B&W material? Not so much. So while colorized Bone looks good, I think I'm partial to the original B&W format.

The Ugly: And nothing here, either. Great comic - very fun; time well-spent!

Thursday, April 18, 2019

Joe Staton - An Appreciation

What a joy it is when we can meet our childhood heroes. I had such an experience back on March 24 when I got to speak briefly with Joe Staton at the C2E2 convention in Chicago. I was fortunate to get in on the Justice Society of America revival in the pages of All-Star Comics in the mid-1970s. Just a handful of issues into the run, the art team shifted and Joe Staton came aboard. I thought his style was just perfect for a team of Golden Age heroes and their villains, and I reveled in these depictions. Joe was co-creator of the Huntress, daughter of the Earth-2 Batman and Catwoman, and I also felt great knowing I was in on the ground floor of her "career". Shortly after this all commenced, I followed Staton's work on Green Lantern. He also seemed perfect for drawing the various characters that populated that book.

So today, it's just another opportunity to say "Thanks!" to Joe for enriching my comics-reading life. Oh, and did you also know that he's the current penciler on the Dick Tracy newspaper strip? Yes he is!

This is a B&W version of a color print I purchased from Joe Staton at C2E2 on March 24 2019

Monday, April 15, 2019

Paul Gulacy's Black Widow, in Bizarre Adventures 25 - a Review

Bizarre Adventures #25 (March 1981)
"I Got the Yo-Yo... You Got the String"
Ralph Macchio-Paul Gulacy

Let's just start this off with a "Bad", because you know I'll end up there eventually. That title definitely gave me a "Huh?" when I opened the book. More on this later. OK, now that I'm past that, let's move on.

I've had the Marvel Premiere Hardcover pictured at right for many years - too many to remember when or where I bought it. To be honest, I knew it contained the George Perez-illustrated Marvel Fanfare story and an early 1980s graphic novel, but had no expectation that I'd turn a page and find this black-and-white beauty that I set before you today. So to now say all these years later that this was a good score is only magnified by the advent of the BWBC. Let's quit wasting time and get on with the commentary.

100-Word Review: 
After an alcohol-fueled tryst, Natasha Romanoff awakens to an alert from SHIELD. She is to assassinate her mentor, a Soviet operative name Irma Klausvichnova. In a plot that involves commando raids, a battle aboard a speeding train, and -crosses and double-crosses, the Black Widow is drawn deep into a mission that is ultimately not what it seems. No character is who they appear to be, and just when Natasha thinks she's uncovered the truth, enter: her lover. And he most certainly owns a truth that is unlike any other.
Seriously, this story, though only 20 pages in length, was like a thriller/mystery movie. Reads just like those play out. Which brings us to...

The Good: Ralph Macchio had shepherded the Black Widow through the Marvel Fanfare 4-parter (presented as the first story in the hardcover that was my resource), which was more akin to standard superhero fare. This story, told two years earlier, was nothing at all like the "Web of Intrigue" arc. This really did play like a film, or at least a television show. Did any readers watch the very short-lived ABC series The Catch? It was about con men constantly scamming everyone, including each other. Everyone was sleeping with multiple people, there were capers aplenty, and the viewing audience was kept guessing who was allied with whom, and which character would be stabbed in the back (perhaps literally) next. I read today's story twice - once around six weeks ago when I read the Marvel Premiere Hardcover (part of my almost-nightly comics reading program. Well, it's not really a program, but I do try to get after it pretty regularly), and then again to refresh my memory and to further soak in the goings-on of this story. It gets super-heavy on exposition near the end, but it's a good exposition.

It's good because this sort of reads like a crime novel but with pictures. In fact, Paul Gulacy's art is so strong, this actually seems more like watching a film with the closed captions on. The art is photo-realistic, and it really works with Macchio's script. It's photo-realistic to the point that I think you'll immediately recognize Natasha's lover, Langely. It just adds a further element of fun to the story. I even liked Natasha's Farrah Fawcett hairdo - it seemed right, given the time this was published.

The opening of the story, with spies doing their spy thing and then silencing an enemy, was a great way to begin. Later, that there was a train scene - and of course, with characters running along the tops of the cars, was very Hollywood-esque. Great touch. I just really liked this story and its execution!

The Bad: I literally did some Internet searching in the middle of writing this post. That story title is so odd, I figured it had to be a reference to something else. Sure enough - from this website:

In June 1966, "The Dean Martin Summer Show" debuted, hosted by Dan Rowan and Dick Martin. This was a different format from the "Laugh-In" that followed, with comedy occupying the center stage.
They had regulars Dom DeLuise, Lainie Kazan and Frankie Randall to provide sketches and musical numbers, but the boys still offered their comedy bits such as a spy spoof with the two in trench coats exchanging this pair of countersigns, Dan -- "I've got the yo-yo," Dick -- "I've got the string." I guess you had to be there.

So now I say, "A-ha...!" - and the title doesn't rankle me as I previously thought. In fact, kudos to Ralph Macchio for his memory. That Rowan & Martin bit must have really stuck with him. Now I feel like I should stick this in a "The Good 2.0" section.

To the bad, though, and maybe this is just me. I don't want to sound prudish, and bear with me on this. I am not naive enough to think that Natasha didn't sleep with Matt Murdock. I'd not be as certain she slept with Clint Barton, as it was years until anyone even knew ol' Hawkeye's name! But when this story begins and Natasha wakes up and reminisces on her night's activities, I was a little taken aback. This might just be me, but I felt, "Hey! That guy's name isn't Murdock, you hussy!" Whatever. Yeah, I think it's just me.

For those allergic to words in a comic book, that last three pages are really going to tick you off.

The Ugly: Zilch. Time well spent. Both times. I'd recommend this to fans of many genres of literature.

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