Other Nexus Graphica Columns
For more information, you can try the following:
On the Ropes
Kings in Disguise
WPA (Works Progress Administration)
We Can Fix It
Free Danger Boy download
Recent Books of Interest
We Can Fix It by Jess Fink (Top Shelf)
Cartoonist Jess Fink's time travel piece is actually a simple one -- future Jess decides to travel
back to see if she can stop her younger selves from making some of the dumber choices in her life. There
are no causality conundrums here, not much in the way of "science" fiction at all -- the time machine
was just a purchase that her future partner made, and she wanted to give it a spin. In fact,
the most interesting plot element specific to such "chronological displacement" is that future
Jess winds up in repeated orgies with her younger selves. Is it group sex? Or technically still
just masturbation? Indeed, time-voyaging aside, the book mainly functions as a memoir of how one
sex-positive cartoonist finally "found" herself, and all our dumb choices (like the non-dumb ones)
shape us and make us who we are. And generally, if life is treating us at all kindly we need
to be grateful -- the book reminds us -- even for those awkward/painful times that brought us
to our present place. Whether you'd choose to get in bed with that dumb mistake-making
earlier you is another consideration.
Hand-Drying in America and Other Stories by Ben Katchor (Pantheon)
I've loved Ben Katchor's work since The Jew of New York, with its use of architecture, pipes,
conduits, economic manifest destiny and more as a means of revealing character. Here, in a thick
hard-bound collection of architecturally and infra-structure based observations of humanity (though
let's not forget Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer, either) Katchor doesn't follow a single
character, or even build a story. Rather, it's a collection of revelatory shards, most just a couple
of pages long (though these are big square pages, and he manages to squeeze in lots of panels), showing
different peoples's interactions with buildings, sidewalks, history, restaurant menus, zoning laws,
supermarket shelves, and so much more, much of it set in fictive East Coast cities and
neighborhoods. The title story, for example, deals with one man's attempt to dry his hands in an
upscale restaurant, only to find the electric dryer out-of-order and the paper towel dispensary
empty. This sets into motion a small chain of events which include keenly observed disintegrating
cocktail napkins, non-absorbent dinner linens, and more, culminating in a wet handshake that leaves
a foreign visitor with an uneasy feeling. Such is Katchor's metier, and it's a fine book to keep around
for dipping in and out of, each encounter leaving you with a sense of a satisfying read (though perhaps
leavened with occasional puzzlement). You may never view the landscape of your own city quite
the same way again.
On the Ropes -- NG's James Vance Interview
Last month, I mentioned how much I liked the James Vance / Dan Burr graphic novel On the Ropes,
a sequel to their two-decades past masterpiece, Kings in Disguise, which I said "reads like a
combination of Clifford Odets and James M. Cain." Or you can think of it as Carnivàle without the mysticism.
In the intervening month, I was lucky enough to catch up with Vance -- virtually
speaking -- and lob some interview questions his way, to which he gave considered and thoughtful replies.
So without further ado, the Nexus Graphica interview with writer James Vance:
What made for critical mass for a sequel now? Or has it been in the works a long time?
You could say it's been a pretty long time. Both Kings in Disguise and On the Ropes
started out as plays that I wrote back in the late 70s and early 80s, and Ropes has
actually been around even longer than Kings. After the Kings graphic novel came
out -- we serialized it starting in 1988 and collected it in '90 -- I started kicking around
the idea of following it up with a Ropes graphic novel. But the timing just wasn't
right then for such a big project. Both of those stories had to be expanded far beyond
the original plays, and carving out the time to do research for something as complex as
Ropes had to be, let alone the actual writing, just wasn't in the cards at the time.
When I was approached about reprinting Kings in late 2004, the question of a sequel
came up, and circumstances were different. My wife Kate Worley had just died, and
she'd always believed in Kings. In a way, it was part of what had brought us together.
So doing the sequel was a kind of tribute to her. And, frankly, I hadn't done any comics
work for a few years, and I was curious to see if I could still do it.
Since we've had another depression, essentially, since Kings in Disguise came
out, how did that influence the writing of the sequel?
That's a reasonable question, but it really didn't influence it at all. The economic
collapse we've been going through started in late 2006, and by that time Dan Burr and
I were already working on the book. There was a moment around the time the Occupy
movement was going strong that he and I were talking on the phone, and Dan remarked
that we'd started out as a period piece, and we'd suddenly become current events... but
it's really just a coincidence.
It certainly would have been easy to tweak the script to make it more obviously
"relevant," but that would have meant sacrificing one of the book's strengths for a
short-term gain. You can tweak a story to make today's readers think you're speaking specially
to them, but then what's left for the readers of tomorrow or next year? Just because
something is a part of history doesn't mean it isn't still relevant to us today. It doesn't
even mean that it isn't still going on, in some way.
I think Kings in Disguise was considered worth reprinting -- and On the Ropes seems
to be speaking to current readers -- because we made honest attempts to portray particular
moments in time, and people are responding to what's universal in those characters' lives
on both a human level and a political one.
Which real-life events and characters were used as influences/composites for the book?
As for the characters, they're 100% fiction. I can't think of any who were influenced
by real-life figures. I made them up out of whole cloth, and Dan built them physically from the
ground up. A few minor situations were suggested by actual events -- for instance, the anecdote
about trying to frame the labor worker by planting dynamite in his car was based on a passing
reference in an oral history that I read -- but the main action is all invented.
Those few weeks in 1937, when the bulk of the story takes place, were so loaded with incident
that there was no point in disguising them as something else. My approach was to immerse myself
in those events and then play what-if with the characters, weaving them into what was going
on in their part of the world as they acted out their own dramas.
WPA Circuses!? As much as I thought I knew about the WPA, this particular aspect seems to have
eluded me. Could be worthy of its own sub-genre. Did you
know this would be a "circus book," going into it?
Before I'd even thought of doing the original play, I remember sitting in a restaurant and the image
came to me, out of the blue, of a man standing on a gallows platform and talking to an
audience. Around the same time, I was looking into the theater scene of the 1930s, and at some
point that gallows image and the research came together in my mind and I began to get a glimmer
about how it could all fit. So there was never a plan to write a circus story, but as the rough
ideas for the characters and storyline slowly came together, that's how it developed.
And yes, there really was a WPA circus. It was part of the Federal Theater Project and operated
from 1935-39. It gave jobs to out-of-work performers, including a down-on-his-luck young acrobat
named Burt Lancaster. Where history and On the Ropes part company is that the real-life
circus toured strictly in the New York and New Jersey area, while I've invented a pilot program
for the midwest in order to place the characters where they'd get into the most trouble.
Any chance we'll see Mr. Bloch again as the country heads toward WWII -- and beyond?
I have a good idea of what happens to Fred beyond On the Ropes. I'm not saying just what it is,
but people who read between the lines may guess just how much more trouble he's already gotten himself into.
It's a story I'd like to tell someday. And Dan and I have agreed that if we ever re-visit Fred,
we won't wait another 25 years before we do it.
Copyright © 2013 Mark London Williams
Mark London Williams wrote the Danger Boy time travel series,
and info on his work can be found at marklondonwilliams.com.
The first "Danger Boy" books is still a free download, but that might be changing soon.
He currently has some truck with zombies, ghosts, undead baseball players and displaced wolves.
Mark gets Twittery @mlondonwmz.