Wednesday, July 29, 2015

PRIMER: SEVEN DREAMS: A BOOK OF NORTH AMERICAN LANDSCAPES


Maybe some context first. When they first published, William T. Vollmann and David Foster Wallace seemed like epochal authors. Both men were young and prodigious, functioning with an intelligence and curiosity and humanity that doesn't come along often. Both Wallace's first novel, The Broom of the System, and Vollman's, You Bright and Risen Angels, were released in 1987, seeming to herald new swatch of literary stars. Wallace's next novel, Infinite Jest, came in 1996 and cemented the bandana-clad author as the complicated voice of a complicated generation. Following his death in 2008, Wallace has been further elevated – I'd say deservedly so – to a status of cultural, generational figurehead. For Vollmann, however – though has never stopped publishing, producing a body of work that could be used to construct a decent fort in your living room – his audience and legacy have seemed tenuous from the word go.

It's not a competition between the two authors, or even a comparison – though Wallace did speak about Vollmann's output encouraging a bit of an inferiority complex in him – but it's interesting to see where two guys who started beside each other wound up. Wallace's continued readership has a lot to do with his relationship with pop culture, I think. As highfalutin and confounding and dense as Wallace got, he was – to a certain extent – grappling with many of the aging slacker issues that the broader culture was engaged with. As indebted as he might have been to, say, Wittgenstein, Wallace was likewise indebted to pot and TV. Vollmann makes – has always made – for a harder sell. He probably hasn't owned a TV in a while and, drug-wise, was mostly notable for experimenting, journalistically, with smoking crack during his time spent in San Francisco's tenderloin district. Where Wallace was very much an author of his time, Vollmann has always been something of an anachronism.

Young Vollmann
Prostitution dominated Vollmann's interests early in his career, and much of his reputation in the 90s had to with the hybrid fiction/biography of his personal patronage. In some lights, the ethics of his projects might have seemed a bit dubious; there was a gonzo-ness to Vollmann's efforts, though a serious, earnest, gritty version. This hasn't really changed since the 80s. His earliest salvo was as a passionate-but-wrongheaded 22-year-old kid running away to join the Taliban in 1982, looking to help the mujahedeen fight the Soviets. Subsequent visits to war zones as a journalist led to the epochal publication of Vollmann's Rising Up and Rising Down, a seven volume, 3 350 word essay on the history and justifications of violence. In the past decade or so, Vollmann's interests have been as varied as poverty, rail riding, and Noh theatre. 

Each subject has been studied with a hard-to-come-by depth, whether that means jumping trains or being made up as a Noh performer – the latter process opening up to Vollmann a drag persona, documented in last year's The Book of Delores. This far flung perspicacity could also go a ways to explain why Vollmann never managed to capture and hold the attention of a broader readership while also holding a devote, fanatical reader base. Reading Vollmann with consistency, you find that, over his varied subject matter, he has been telling a larger, deeper story all along. All this time Vollmann has always been telling a story of a single reality that's both transient and immovable.



Vollmann's most consistent project, and the work will most likely turn out to be his legacy, he sketched at the outset of his career. Seven Dreams: A Book of North American Landscapes chronicles the incessantly disastrous and compulsively cruel interactions between white Europeans and the indigenous peoples of our North American continent. Exhaustively researched and impressively thorough, Vollmann's project was ambitions in declaration and, so far, has been triumphant in execution. Throughout the 90s, he completed four of his threatened seven installments. Thoughout the 2000s, what was beginning to seem like abandoned ambition, a promise made with the aplomb of youth, Vollmann has picked the Seven Dream back up fifteen years later with the Infinite Jest-sized The Dying Grass

The first "dream" was released in 1990. Set in the 10th century, The Ice-Shirt offers both a mythology of Norse transformations as well as a history of their encounters with the indigenous people, dubbed Skraelings, who they "discovered" in what is now Newfoundland. As Vollmann would go on to do with all the subsequent "dreams", he mingles events in the past with his study in the present. The second dream came out two yeas later, thick in a way that would become a running joke through Vollmann's career – each book seems to feature an apology to an editor, and a promise that the next book will be shorter. Fathers and Crows addressed the Jesuit tampering with the Huron and Iroquois. Doing press for The Orenda, Joseph Boyden often cited Fathers and Crows as a "big influence". Vollman then jumped his chronology, releasing the sixth dream, The Rifles, in 1994. This entry is much more contemporary, keeping close to the 90s, to Northern Canada and the removal of the Inuit from Inukjuak, Quebec to Resolute, Nunavut. Here Vollmann made himself especially present, travelling to the magnetic north to recreate the Franklin Expedition. The seven year pause between The Rifles and the third dream, Argall – the de-Disneyed story of Pocahontas – might be best explained by the fact Vollmann chose to narrate the book in Elizabethan English, a technique that makes room for both expansive poetic moments as well awkwardly purple spates full of linguistic duds. 

Vollmann is not a hand-holder. These dreams are dense and rewarding books which live up to their designations as dreams, shifting from past to present, from fact to feeling to opinion, with little narrative notice. Vollmann appears in the dreams as William the Blind, casting himself as a sort of inadequate dreamer, these texts – these histories – become sort of burdens he bears – or wears, rather, as Vollmann "dons" these histories like garments, or "shirts." The preface to The Ice-Shirt makes for a decent preface to the whole, and is worth quoting in full:
Should I dream one dream or seven? – Anyone would prefer a single afternoon fancy to grease his heels, so that easy wings might flower there, and then he could play between blue skies and rooftops, but as I could never fly, having put on the Ice-Shirt, the Crow-Shirt and the Poison-Shirt, there is no hope in frivolous ambition. Any shirt, be it of ever so many colors, is but a straightjacket, which is why I see no beauty, nor hear of any, except among the naked. The clouds are as hard as stones, and we all dream one black dream – I however, will now dream seven, to which correspond the Seven Ages of WINELAND THE GOOD. Each Age was worse than the one before, because we thought we must amend whatever we found, nothing of what was being reflected in the ice-mirrors of our ideas. Yet we were scarcely blameworthy, any more than the bacillli which attack and overcome a living body; for history has a purpose (If not, then there is nothing wrong with inventing one.), then our undermining of trees and tribes have been good for someting. – Be it so.
After a fifteen year hiatus – during which time he received the National Book Award and was awarded a five-year fellowship/grant from the Strauss Living Award that provides $50,000 a year, tax free – Vollmann is dreaming and donning again. The fifth dream, The Dying Grass: A Novel of the Nez Perce War, at nearly 1 400 pages, doesn't arrive so much as thunk. Plumbing the battle(s) between Plains Indians and the US Army that took place between June and October of 1877, Vollmann, as before, fleshes out a history always at risk of becoming lacuna. The Washington Post just called it "brilliant and alive" and "the reading experience of a lifetime." Kirkus Reviews declared it "stunning" "note-perfect incantation."

But will anyone read it?

Ambition and commitment like Vollmann's doesn't really exist anymore, a reality described by the marketplace as much as by culture. A disinterest in big books as well as a lingering post-9/11 mistrust of history viewed through anything but a plain lens doesn't augur well. The popular acceptance of Vollmann's peer – that is David Foster Wallace – has much to do with a dual acceptance of Wallace's themes as well as the author's increasingly ability to hone his nuanced expression of those themes in such a way that it could be more wideley understood. In 30 years, Vollmann hasn't much budged. The shame of that isn't literary so much as it is personal. Vollmann's dream so far has been as seminal and profound as it has laborious and troubling. But we shouldn't shy away, because the reality of it is that it's our reality. 

The beauty, violence, and largess that Vollmann renders in his work is ultimately our making; his dreams are made of the residue of our actions, the shirts he puts on the troubling fashions we'd rather leave in the past. While size and scope will always be a deterrent, I can't help but think that it's likewise a reluctance to both account for what we've done – I'm talking about "we" in the majestic plural – as well as engage with an account of that past that might have readers steer clear from Vollmann. But I take a certain comfort in knowing that whether or not he's read widely – or at all – Vollmann will not change and not slow down and probably won't publish that short book he's been promising since 1992.

- Andrew

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Q&A: DRAWN & QUARTERLY 25th ANNIVERSARY TOME




When, with a mouth full of Kensington Market arepa, I tell a comics-minded pal that I intend to interview Drawn and Quarterly: Twenty-five Years of Contemporary Cartooning, Comics, and Graphic Novels (Drawn and Quarterly), he looks at me like I've just torn a panel off of his favourite strip.

“You mean a review, right? You should get your critical terminology down.”

“No, I mean interview,” I say under a sarcastic tortilla chip crunch.

“Yuh,” he replies muffling the start of some whimsy with a giant chunk of empanada.

“D & Q 25, how’d you get such an impressively muscular physique? Are you aware of how well your 700 plus pages reset warped books, prop open windows to a nice summer breeze, crack beers?”

I would laugh a little, if not for the chokehold my plantain, cheese, and guac arepa, holds in the salisified sun of the Market. I would laugh, if not for the fact I'll be lugging the book around in my backpack for the rest of my visit.

Two weeks and 776 pages later, I sit on the tree-lined second story deck of a rented cottage overlooking a conversational frog-pond. I drink a few beachy beers from the Collingwood LCBO, and wait for
D & Q 25 to speak to me from across the wire café–type table. Surely, I am not posing the right questions to the yellow and black monolith propped up in its seat. My family has gone to the beach, and I’ve stayed behind with the seemingly impossible task of summarizing all of the interviews, appreciations, photos, new, rare, and classic comics generously loaded within. I feel as bookishly adrift as the asteroid-topping glass-globed library floating on the book's face. My glasses are fogged with the splattered space amoebas of sustained inner flight and cottage drunkenness. My lips almost recite my thoughts out of perseverance. How will I begin to connect the varied hard work of Peggy Burns, Tom Develin, Adrian Tomine, Kate Beaton, Art Speigelman, Tove Jansson, Ron Rege Jr, Joe Matt, Rutu Modon, Helge Dascher et al? Not to mention the appreciations penned by Margaret Atwood, Lee Henderson, Shelia Heti, Lemony Snickett, Jonathan Letham etc. Forget about the 100 pages of D & Q history and genealogy introducing the collection. I’m numb-tongued at the thought.

Everything else is talking. The frogs are bromping, birds twittering, trees whispering in the breeze like rain. I get into a few imaginatively renamed comics themed beers to break the ice in the heat. A Dominion Ale washes down a Chester Brune washes down a Lynda Barry Berry Lager. My chair squeaks woozy symphonic approval. If I can’t wrap my mind around the definitive history of Canada’s most beloved and globally influential comics publisher, at least I can get wrapped up in another easy sunny day, and pretend my beers have D & Q-themed names in some endless summer series of beautifully labeled delights. A review of this fine day is surely a simpler prospect, I glimmer. 


Then again, I sweat, how exactly does one get to the bottom of a day? I get to the bottom of a glass of what should be called Crisp Ale-iveros Founder’s Brew, and picture D & Q’s famously succinct founding Chief, Chris Oliveros, drinking Vintage Moomin Vin and having a long chat with the final proofs of the book lounging before me. A horsefly takes a chunk out of my daydream and my ears recalibrate through the booze with a deep suspicion of the elemental world. Microfocusing so, I hear a small scratchy voice (Is the fly repenting?). At first it’s a yawn really – a yawn like the soft rustling of pages.

“Aren’t you going to say something? Or at least offer me a drink?”

I am realistically gobsmacked. Each word cursors across my comprehension in a well-chosen font. The voice’s gender is indeterminate (perhaps, in keeping with D & Q’s vocal feminism) and has a quiet Canadian accent. It is world-weary and industrious, yet sensitively mid-party. Have I just entered into a Julie Doucet dreamworld? I look around like I don’t know who’s talking, playing it drunkenly, humanly cool. Some impatient fluttering is followed by the sight of D & Q 25’s orange ribbon marker caterpillar-hooking into one of the tables’ wired holes. Then with a cartoonish “heave-ho” the book ascends in ass-end up stutters, hops to my latest beer (Brewing Stories) and, marker uncoiled, slurps up my pint with a fiery thin tongue.



“I thought we were doing an interview here. All the names that are supposed to be collected inside of me seem to be getting interviews all over the place. You’ve joined the journalistic conga line on occasion, if I’ve heard correctly. I think it’s my turn to lead.”

“Wha.. ah what should I ask you?”

“Me?! I feel like I’ve said what I’m going to say. I’ve been told I’ve got 25 years of complementary thoughts, wills, grants, designs, and outputs on record in here.”

D & Q 25 taps what looks like the place a temple would be with the sopping ribbon.

“I want to know what you think. It’s not everyday I get to interview a reader.”

25 says this as though a cyborg meeting one of a large team of its creators.

Does reading amount to a form of creation? I nearly ask, but feel in over my head on all levels. It’s one thing for an object to take on personalities in the illustrations and narratives of lively comics, but it’s a very different one to be interviewed by the authoritative embodiment of this possibility in real, inebriated cottage time. I stare at the book until it is still and silent. I begin to drift off – waking life punts back and forth between the songs of frogs.

“Psst. Don’t shut up on me now. Let’s take this step by step here. Some of my siblings have had a chance to hear a bit about their receptions in the news while on display at Librarie D & Q and other busy independent bookstores. Unfortunately, we’re never really certain which one of us has been under review at any given time, in any given case. Readers don’t seem to distinguish between us. They mass us together in a single referent, like we don’t incorporate many autobiographies over our lives.”

As if subdividing from within, 25 springs a stack of folded pages into my hands. Is it a trick of woodsy light or are they bloodied at their torn margins?

“Look these over and we’ll ease into this thing.”

There are very positive 3 reviews of the anthology (NY Times, Montreal Review of Books, and The Guardian) folded around a short questionnaire.

“There won’t be any more beer until got I’ve my answers. My livelihood depends on it.”

I think of all the D & Q contributors who must have heard these editorial words over the past 25 years.

25 rehooks its ribbon marker on to the tabletop and flings itself over the edge of the deck. I don’t hear a punctuating splash (though the frogs have paused), so I presume this cosmopolitan anthology is going for a head-clearing hike along one of the property's well-managed trails or comparing the foliage in its illustrated pages (like specimens from Leanne Shapton’s
Native Trees of Canada) to what’s outside .

I immediately reenter the cottage to look for beer. I keep one eye trained on the rec room’s lone tall bookshelf until I get to the fridge. This book isn’t shit-talking. All of my perfectly chilled, soon to be comically renamed beers are gone. All of the coolers full of my siblings' drinks are gone too. Presumably, my family has taken them to the beach and I’ve consumed all of my beer. But I can’t be sure. I rack my memory and it just spins. I didn’t bring any of my other D & Q titles did I? I left
Poetry is Useless and Stroppy at home, right? The family party supplies cannot withstand the combined Dionysian forces of an existentially geared talking silhouette and the All-Star Schnauzer Band. Yes, I left them at home, but they’ve probably lifted my girlfriend’s visa and are hitting Guelph’s bar scene hard. Trapper’s washed down with Doogies washed down with Frank’s.

I really want another beer, but I am 20 km out of town. More importantly, I don’t want to piss this book off. The power with which it climbed and disembarked (out of inanimate-ness nonetheless!) leads me to conclude that I could be bludgeoned to death from atop a dusty cabinet or smothered in my suddenly boring dreams faster than I could chug a final brew. My family would find me resembling an inkily eviscerated panel by Seiichi Hoyoshi. I can’t expose them to such a gruesome discovery of subsequent literary danger.

Luckily, I’ve already read the reviews. I’ll incorporate them into my textual analysis in the answers or improv some jargony comments when the book and I reconvene. How do we reconvene? Do I let out a whistle? Do I cry: ”Oh 25, you wonderful book! Please bring back my beer. I’m ready to talk.”

I crumple into the mustiest couch (the fumes will keep me alert) and get down to it.

“ QUESTIONS ALL BOOKS OUGHT TO ASK A READER *

  1. What were the circumstances of my birth
  2. Who are my parents?
  3. Why was I made?
  4. Am I beautiful, honest, and good?
  5. Will I die? When?
  6. What does it mean to read?
  7. What will you do with me now that I’ve been read?
  8. Will there ever be a time when I am free?
  9. Will I have a family?
  10. Is there anything you’ve always wanted to ask a book, but were too afraid to ask – but would feel comfortable asking me?”

I drowsily think of my first answer. It’s finally time to get concise. I speak as I write.

“You were born in a small apartment in Montreal under humble circumstances. You were loved from the moment you were imagined...”

I awake to a weight on my chest and the smell of beer on the breath of freshly printed pages. My pen pendulums by the orange of a snaking tongue. The pen drops.

“Where’s the party?”

“Huh?” I respond, hands moving to absorb the intensity sure to be packed into the book's combined blows.

“You didn’t get very far, I will concede. But I was having a few G & T’s with some of the older books over there.”

The orange ribbon points to the tall lone bookshelf. Pulp and lit classics with, mostly of North American and European publication, bristle at their mention. With cocktails.

“And they seemed to say that if your pages contain all the questions for the readers and the writers alike, than you can probably take a pass on interviews for a bit. It’s time to celebrate! We’ll leave the mess for everyone else to clean up!’

25 pirouettes onto the coffee table and breaks into a convincing whip/nae nae.

“But wait, I want to ask you a question.”

25 stares me down.


- Brad, who does not expect that all 25s will act like his 25. You should bring one along on your next vacation to see how it experiences different locales and cultures and alcoholic beverages. Book clubs around these books could be an edifying time as well – they could be like long hoped for family reunions, even.

Brad de Roo: What the fuck did you do with all my beer?

D&Q 25: [We burst into laughter. 25 dabs photo-realistic tears from where’d you’d imagine some eyes.] 


Postscript: 

“Should we share a few?” I add.

Four hours later, my family returns from the beach, a couple coolers in tow. Barbara Gowdy’s Falling Angel’s and Hamlet and I are sitting cross-legged around our drinks on the floor, still giggling about Chester Brown’s ‘The Zombie Who Liked Arts’ comic which 25 flashed at us with an undead leer. 25 is in a cob-webby corner making out with The Norton Anthology of Canadian Literature in English. Al Purdy poems are slipping Michael De Forge comics the tongue. The rest of the party's getting down to frogsong and Kool and the Gang, giving interviews to each other about every damn thing.

“Brad, what are you doing?” – all of my family at once.

“I’m reading comics” 


* The questionnaire was probably transcribed by 25’s drinking buddy BK Munn. As 25 later told it: “When a few siblings and I were close enough on the Bookshelf D & Q 25 Anniversary display, we conspired to ask some of our cousins to help us find someone to represent our queries in the world. We’d see Seth and Marc Bell briefly eying our shelves over the years, but they merely tipped their hats and heads, being all too familiar with our entreaties. We chanced reaching out to a few regular customers to no effect. After one particularly deep sleep in the store (the eBar’s bass ceased to shake our spines earlier than usual and the days book returns had halved the Can Lit section’s historic snores) we each awoke with a new page in us. In retrospect, we’d overheard many of our cartoonists and readers repeat these questions over and over in different incarnations. Many of the characters we house seem preoccupied with them as well. We often wonder if they collaborated to write this questionnaire to crystallize our collective self-understanding. But it could have easily been one of the store’s comics-minded patrons or staff. Our section is full of note-leaving, booknappings, and unrequited love, second only to the Erotica section”

Full disclosure: At this point in the celebrations, 25 had just smoked something with a dog-eared, camp-fire stained Complete Garfield, so recollections were getting a tad rambly and fantastical.

REVIEW: PUTINISM: RUSSIA AND ITS FUTURE WITH THE WEST



It isn’t any secret that Stephen Harper loves to spew invective against Vladimir Putin. But after reading Putinism by Walter Laqueur, I am struck by how much these two have in common. The first, and probably most important, is that they have both maintained their political success by reigning during an era of high priced oil. This, of course, is changing and so may their popularity. They also both love monuments and memorials. This can be read as a metaphor for big power chauvinism. They are exceedingly private and do not have many close advisors. And there’s also something very similar about the eyes. Enough said.

Laqueur’s fascination with Russia is obvious. He has written over 20 books and does an excellent job of explaining the Russian psyche through its chaotic history. In fact, this constant chaos is a clue to why the average Russian does not mind strong rulers. Angered by the lack of respect after WW2, the glory of the motherland was a hole that needed to be filled. In a 2013 poll when asked what was more important: to be seen as a respected super power or to have a high standard of living, 56% preferred the super power agenda. The Sochi Olympics and the Crimean situation certainly fed this need and help explain Putin’s 90% approval rating.

To be clear, I am not a fan of Vladimir Putin. I mean the guy is purported to have $160 million dollars in wrist watches. But Putinism has helped me understand why an agent from the KGB is now running Russia. Laqueur also does an interesting job of forecasting Russia’s future. They have a big problem with demographics. A Russian demographer says that the population will halve in the next 50 years as the birth rate has fallen from 1.9 in the 60’s to a recent 1.6. Its future has been described as a space without people. One solution is immigration, but xenophobia runs pretty deep. And then there are so many other fractious and volatile relationships - China, the EU, the United States, all of the Central Asian republics. Laqueur illuminates all of this with little fanfare. There is much to be recommended in this book. I think I’m even going to order one of his older ones.


- Barb

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Q&A: SARAH MANGLE, creator of The Affirmations Colouring Book


The seemingly sudden arrival of what's being sold as "adult colouring books" have had as many customers scratching their heads as grabbing for their pencil crayons. There's been a lot of discussion of the calming effects of colouring, or of a return to creative endeavors, but I think the most cogent description comes from Sarah Mangle, speaking with the Globe and Mail back in February. “I’m not a digital artist – I still draw pencil to paper,” she told the paper. “It really is a tactile thing. I like how the paper feels, how the pencil or marker or crayon smells. It’s a real and physical experience – more than screen time.”

Mangle's comments reminded me of a great many artists commenting on the root passions for their particular forms. For painters, it's often the simple smell of paints that compels them over any grander endgame; for writers, it's the words themselves, the constructions of sentences more than any larger story. As soothing or therapeutic as any colouring book may be, chances are it will be the sensualness of the process that's bringing many adults back to the activities of their youth. 

Mangle, an artist, musician, and early childhood educator – from Wolfville, NS, of Guelph for a spell, and now Montreal-based –  released The Affirmations Colouring Book last year, ahead of the recent trend. Immobilized by a knee injury, Mangle began drawing the Affirmations as a means of "to pass the time and encourage herself. Through suggestions of friends and family, the colouring book project grew into a reality." By the time the "adult" colouring books became news, Mangle's Affirmations had been selling out across the country. Just recently, the Bookshelf finally got some copies, and figured we'd find out a bit more about her Affirmations and get her thoughts on the larger trends.


The Affirmations Colouring Book came out ahead of the curve. Were you at all surprised to see this somewhat sudden mass interest in and return to colouring?

Adult colouring books have existed for a long long time in the tradition of mandala colouring books. They were not so trendy. You could find them in the New Age and Self Help sections. Big publishers have recently realized they can create a new market through this angle of 'adult colouring books' and they're going for it and they're quite successful. Honestly, I feel cynical about that part of it. It's another moment where Amazon and other similar companies are winning the biggest from this new market they have invested in. So, I'm cynical about the big business capitalism part of it but the part where many adults I know are returning to colouring as a way to bring creativity, reflection, play and comfort to their lives, I love that part. It's beautiful. I'm an adult who has always drawn, like, my whole life. I have always identified as an artist, so, for me, this idea that I don't draw or colour as an artist personally doesn't commute. I didn't return to colouring. I never stopped.

You distinguish The Affirmations as being for all ages – as opposed to just adult. When I first heard about "adult" colouring books, I just sort assumed they would bawdy or raunchy – Baby Blue Colouring, you know? But from all the adult books I've seen, kids would have a ball with them too. Why the distinction, do you think?


There are sexy 'adult' colouring books out there for sure. And I think they have also existed long before this current trend. For me, the distinction of the 'adult colouring book' that is not carrying sexual or violent content is just about market creation. The distinction of 'adult colouring book' is about suggesting to adults that they buy something they wouldn't consider buying if it was just called a colouring book. My book doesn't care what age you are because I don't care what age you are. The pages don't care, the pictures don't care. Everyone is invited to colour. I also wanted people of different ages to share the book and colour together. 




Pretty much every kid draws, every kid colours, whether or not they're being creative or just passing the time – or I guess there really isn't a distinction at that age. What happens to that casual creativity?

Drawing is so great and our school system doesn't do a good job of nurturing authentic creativity as children age. At a certain point, drawing is seen as a waste of time unless a person is "talented" but what does that even mean? Why is only figurative drawing impressive at a certain moment? It's a widely held narrow-minded belief. I was proud of being interested in art when I was in high school but I also had the benefit of really sucking at science. People who were good at science were considered to be the most smart and very promising. I failed chemistry. I didn't care about physics and actually studying it made me angry. So, I had the benefit of being outside of what would be really successful and I cultivated my own interests.
 


Maybe you could provide a little background to The Affirmations. Did the animals come before the affirmations? What was the process of pairing one with the other?

If I'm completely honest about this, it has to do with my relationship to my own dog who gives me a great deal of comfort. He witnesses all my feelings and has been with me since my early 20s (I'm 34 now). I'm a private person. I hate crying in public. I have a few close friends, but for the most part I'm private. For me, my pet is my closest creature, and he's with me in my studio in my house as I make all my artwork. When I think of comfort, I immediately think of my dog. So that is the root of it. Otherwise, it is also a way to be inclusive. If I attempted to draw people in the book, I would want to make sure I included many many different bodies of many different kinds, but even then, it can be tokenizing really easily, so I thought about pets and patterns as a more accessible equalizer. People also love seeing drawings of their own individual pets. It hits them in heart and I like that.
 


You're casting the net for animals for your next book. Where'd you get the furry buddies for this first one?

All the pets in The Affirmations Colouring Book are portraits of actual animals except for the one on the cover. I started drawing from friend's internet posts of their pets, and then people started emailing me photos of their beloved creatures.
 


You're a writer and musician as well. With the book, though, there's a level of literal interaction (as opposed to, say, intellectual or emotional interaction) that not exactly applicable to those other forms, right? 

The book is direct and simple sure, but it's also a lot about emotional support and recognition. It's about colouring, reflecting, relaxing, sharing,comfort, feeling the feelings and vulnerability. In that way, my writing (song or story) is all about emotional connection and recognition, same as this book. For me the real plot is the emotional trip, and the rest (music, tone, voice language, line, shape) is the vehicle that delivers you there.
 


What's the experience of having people colour in your work?

I love it when people send me photos of their coloured work. It feels like a real artistic collaboration. People are colouring the pages in beautiful ways.

Monday, July 13, 2015

REVIEW: GO SET A WATCHMAN


It's no hyperbole to suggest that Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, published in 1960, is probably the most broadly beloved North American novel. Lee's evocation of childhood summers is so casually rich, I wouldn't be surprised if many readers have adopted false memories of growing up in the South in the dusty 30s. Adding to that summer play a racially charged court case that shows the children of lawyer Atticus Finch that a person should be judged on their character above all provided the book with a moral longevity that has so far kept the story relevant for every new generation of readers. Its legacy, and the legacy of its author, was further enlivened by Mockingbird being a stand-alone. Nelle Harper Lee came out of nowhere, delivered a book that spoke so eloquently for itself, and then returned to wherever she'd come from. What does it mean, then, after 55 years of Mockingbird flying solo, to now have a sort of sequel?

Go Set a Watchman comes to us with a little controversy. Lee has been very protective of herself and her (heretofore) only book ever since its publication. The impression was she'd said everything she wanted to say in that single submission. Her "Introduction" to the 33rd anniversary edition was simply a terse complaint about introductions, which, she writes, "inhibit pleasure... kill the joy of anticipation... [and] frustrate curiosity." The recent and sudden "discovery" of a new book raised some questions about Lee's level of consent at her advanced age. More may come out about that conflict, but for the time being I don't think it's enough to keep anyone from having a look at Watchman.

If I have any realistic qualms with the new book as it is, they concern a lack of context. A second party Introduction here would have been helpful, as the circumstances of how the book comes to us are important. It's good and somewhat important to know, going into Go Set a Watchman, that the text is essentially the book that Lee first submitted for publication. Here Jean Louise "Scout" Finch is 26, living in New York, and home to visit Maycomb for two weeks. The sleepy, poor town of her childhood is changing, both willingly and not-so-willingly. During her visit, as some of the shine of her childhood is scuffed away, Jean Louise flashes back to her youth, to the summer games with her older brother Jem and her seasonal neighbour Dill, as well as the creeping secrets and ignominies of a small town. Lee was encouraged to expand on these elements and the result is To Kill a Mockingbird.

Delving into Watchman, it's key to know that, even though its events take place twenty years after the classic book, it was written before. It's likewise important to know that, by all appearances, this novel comes to us as it was originally submitted. As a result, the chronology of the writing mixing with the chronology of its story make for a sometimes awkward – though not necessarily disastrous – fit for the two books. For a writer so protective of her work, leaving out a note about the manuscript's provenance feels like a severe disservice.

As far as the actual text goes, though, all that's neither here nor there.

Any picadillos with the story itself will probably come on a reader-to-reader basis, depending on any given reader's relationship with the original book. Essentially, Jean Louise Finch has been 9 years old for 55 years now, preserved in all her stubborn, scrappy perfection in the amber of literature. Atticus Finch has stayed a crack shot and champion for those who can't fight for themselves and Calpurnia has remained a loving, knowing, and frank mother figure. Each reader will have to decide for themselves whether they want Scout to grow up to be a 26 year old woman chaffing under the expectations of being a woman, and a Southern one at that, or whether they want to encounter Atticus, who they lionize as much as his own children, in his old age, arthritic, flawed, and politically out of step with the time.

Choosing whether or not a beloved character can age and change is a privilege not extended by life. With this in mind, Watchman starts to feel like a meta-narrative. The concerns of the book are the reader's concerns as well. Jean Louise's adult return to Maycomb doubles as our adult return to Maycomb. The town that she and we find is crawling out of the Depression-era poverty, the tectonic plates of class beginning to shift. But it's also holding firmly onto to its history and autonomy, especially as far as race relations are concerned. Watchman asks to what extent should we resist change, wonders how sustainable the status quo is. The reader asks this of the book as Jean Louise asks it of her hometown, of her father, of herself.

Part of Mockingbird's long-distance appeal has to do with the moral neatness of it, I think. It's about maturation, a song of innocence of experience, but in a limited way. The lessons learned are fundamental, but still self-evident. The galvanizing court case at its centre deals with a prejudice so blatant that the world is easily divvied up into heroes and villains. Watchman is the next logical step of that maturation, which is complication. If Mockingbird is a fine evocation of the pivots of childhood, Watchman is likewise a fine evocation of the pivots of adulthood. Supposedly the indefatigable success of Mockingbird squashed Lee's ability to produce a sequel, but it turns out that, with what was her first book, she had written a fitting companion to her second.

- Andrew

REVIEW: I REFUSE




Norway is a small country of 5 million people that has given birth to a number of exceptional novelists. A bit like Canada, in a way, but with a better government. There is Karl Ove Knausgaard, the enfant terrible of the 6 volume autobiographical series, My Struggle. I am waiting for volume 5. He is amazing. Then there is Jo Nesbø, the prolific crime writer – although I must say his books are too weird and violent for my taste. But we are here to talk about Per Petterson, the acclaimed author of Out Stealing Horses, now with his newest book, I Refuse.

Petterson’s themes are the relationships between children and parents; the ties between the past and the present, memory and regret. Nobody writes like Petterson – his language so plain and direct, yet so evocative of the actual condition of living. He is exquisitely attuned to the nuances of human interaction – both verbal and silent. These interactions, however minute, reverberate in our brains long after they are over. As Faulkner said, “the past isn’t dead; it isn’t even past.” We must thank Don Bartlett for rendering these lives so compellingly into English. This book tells the story of the Berggren children, torn apart by violence and abandonment and most particularly of Tommy, the oldest, and his best friend, Jim. We catch glimpses of them, as in snapshots, scarred by their past, struggling through the present. I Refuse is unbelievably sad. But I like sad stories.

- Brian

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Q&A: ANDERS NILSEN



Poetry is Useless (Drawn & Quarterly) by Anders Nilsen hit my eyes at a useful time. To enter into a series of fragments, I’d just finished reading Drawn and Quarterly’s 700 page anthology of comics, appreciations, interviews, and miscellanea and I was struck by the network of diversely partial, rare, short, and sweet materials which form the tendons and tangents of its body of work. I’d also just spoken with cartoonist Marc Bell about all the boxes of his art (and many of the comics he’d collected) currently sitting (waiting?) in storage. Inevitably, I started to wonder what becomes of all the drafts, the mini-comics, the sketches, the doodles without a home. Not being any kind of visual artist myself, I further grew curious about how much a full-time illustrator creates that does not find use in a larger scale project which tend to favour full narratives over non-linear experimentation – where do all the abandoned ideas, the micro jewels of thought, the scraps of pattern, incident, and memory go?

According to two time Ignatz Award winner (
Don’t Go Where I Can’t Follow and Big Questions) Anders Nilsen, much of the above, plus animal and human portraits, travelogue, jokes, and aphorisms, best arrive fully overlapped in a genre-bursting sketchbook-as-graphic novel. It’s up to the engaged reader to poetically, and maybe uselessly, fill in the shifting gaps between text, image, character, context, chance, personal perspective, and who knows what else.  

- Brad de Roo, who should mention if you are soon planning a trip to the US of A, you could fill in some shifting gaps by catching the tail end of Ander’s tour with Marc Bell (which ends non-Americanly in Vancouver on July 16th) or by autoing over to the Autoptic Festival which he co-runs in Minneapolis from August 8-9th.   


Despite the maybe dismissive title, Poetry is Useless, do you read poetry? Do any poets usefully stand out to you? 
 
No, I never read a lot of poetry outside of school, though I remember getting into it. And as a kid I wrote a fair amount. I liked Lewis Carroll and ee cummings. I got excited about Howl as a kid at some point, of course.

Do you keep a list of things that are useless? Should art have a use? 

 
Keeping a list of useless things seems not very useful to me. The usefulness of art, or lack thereof is very interesting to me. But it's complicated. My thoughts about it have changed a fair amount since I was a kid. I liked a simple answer to the question, mostly in the negative when I was a kid. Now I like complicated answers to most questions, this being one such.

Your work here and elsewhere is full of metaphysical and ethical questions. To pick up a question that goes back to Plato, what is the relationship between art and philosophy? Is an understanding of, or an interaction with, philosophy essential to good art? Do philosophical concerns and aesthetic impulses ever conflict in your work? 

 
Most art is philosophical whether the artist intends it or not. Most human interaction and behavior is the same. But Philosophy is sort of dead and boring. Art is a way of making play out of it. Of testing it out in hypotheticals, of making it real by turning it inside out. The only conflict between philosophical and aesthetic concerns in my work is when I fail to make the ideas interesting and they stay dead like a fish in the grass.

Would it be fair to say that this book is a collation of sometimes overlapping sketchbooks? Do you have many sketchbooks going at once? Are they itemized in any way or relatively free-form? How many books went into this mix? 

 
Sure, that would be fair. I usually have two or three books of one sort or another going that might get a good drawing going. There are about 25 sketchbooks represented in the book. All numbered with roman numerals.


Any favourite published sketchbook by other artists? What about the notebooks of philosophers, writers, or artists? 

 
I recently saw a beautiful book reproducing Emily Dickenson's little fragmentary poems and writings on scraps of paper, torn bits of envelope etc. Super gorgeous book. I'm about to show Laura Park's sketchbooks in this little show I'm putting together in Minneapolis a little later in the summer. Also super gorgeous. Chris Ware's sketchbooks are really nice.

Poetry is Useless features many strips in second person. What about this type of narrative appeals to you? Do you feel a responsibility to address the reader directly? Is it sometimes a means of transgressing the lines between fiction and non-fiction?


I don't feel a responsibility… I just like doing it. It's a sort of conceit of imagining you can really be having a one on one conversation in a mass medium. That you can really address someone directly. I don't know if it works or not. I think it can end up doing the opposite, and being a little alienating. But I like the idea. And yeah, it is slightly transgressive of fact and fiction, which is also nice. The two merge a little. 





Your book’s inclusion of many portraits (sometimes beneath narratives, other times superimposed within strips) facing the reader or the page or looking into other scenes not totally viewable by the reader really got me thinking about bearing witness to the Other. I started asking questions like: ‘What are these people looking at? Does the direction of their gaze change how I am to receive the narrative? What does it mean to see them in portions, so close to portions of story? Is this in a sense a visual extension of second person narration? Is this a means of breaking down the usual reader/author perspective?’

Cool. Generating questions in the mind of my readers is pretty much what it's all about. One of the things I like about the 'sketchbook' form is that it does create arbitrary connections between disparate images, which begs for connection in the reader's mind.

Continuing a bit with the question of addressing a reader, you mentioned in a recent interview with The Comics Journal that most of this material was already published on your blog and therefore placed the work in a different relationship to the reader than a fully finished unseen narrative would have. You said:

It’s a sketchbook because it’s this little book that I have in my pocket, but on the other hand it’s not really a sketchbook because I am thinking about an audience, so it is really this ongoing conversation that I’m having with an audience
Does this ongoing internet-mediated conversation with an audience change the way you write, draw, and edit?

Oh yeah, totally. This material would not exist without the internet. There's a very real way where doing this work is like a performance. It feels a little like doing stand-up. There's a popular idea about art making that it's some sort of personal, internal process of 'self expression' that the artist is doing in a self contained sort of way. This is very much about having an audience - trying to be funny, provocative, puzzling, frustrating, etc. Without an audience it would be pointless.

I’ve recently climbed around on Drawn and Quarterly’s boulder-sized 25th anniversary anthology. It features a short essay about D and Q that you wrote, a journalistic appreciation of your work, and some rare examples of your comics. What does it feel like to be featured in such a wonderfully varied and celebrated document?

I'm super honored to be part of that book and part of the life and history and family that that company is. It means a lot to me. I feel super lucky to be connected with that history.

What’s next? Will any of the strips or motifs or drawings found in this new book find their way into future work? Are your sketchbooks piling up with convergent or divergent materials? 

 
Mostly I'm drawing landscapes in my sketchbooks lately. The blank talking silhouette head hasn't had much to say for a while, so maybe he's retired. Or no longer necessary. Not sure. But there will likely be more travelogues, abstract shapes, ears and drawings of hairdos. So maybe I'll do another book of sketchbook stuff in a few years. Or maybe not. Hard to say.

Is there anything about comics or yourself or any other topic that you feel surprised not to have been asked about, here or ever?


Nobody ever asks me about my cat in these interviews. I could fill pages talking about my cat. And it would be fascinating. Oh well.