Trouble with Comics, Guest Reviewer Month - Bob Levin on Sitting Shiva for Myself

Guest Reviewer Month - Bob Levin on Sitting Shiva for Myself

The fact we have a writer of Bob Levin’s stature agreeing to provide a review is due to his kindness and a “it can’t hurt to ask” attitude that I’ve carried through my life with a success rate of maybe 52%. Levin is not really a critic; he’s a journalist whose subject is primarily outsider cartoonists, those who have flouted conventions, rules and even copyright laws (or worse, depending on one’s verdict after reading Most Outrageous, his examination of the life, career and sexual abuse case against Hustler cartoonist Dwayne (“Chester the Molester”) Tinsley). I came to his work first through The Pirates and The Mouse: Disney’s War Against the Counterculture and felt it was an important effort because in my admittedly incomplete experience there hadn’t been many books about cartoonists that were very serious, that had a strong journalistic voice while credibly establishing their subject within the world around them. What was around was fun but fannish, or deadly dull. Levin has a sly wit that shows his allegiance to his subjects. He doesn’t glorify them or necessarily agree with their choices of windmills at which to tilt, but it’s clear there is rebellion in his heart. You get a small example of that in Most Outrageous, when pleads guilty to writing under the influence of Faulkner, or even here, where he offers a review not of a comic book or graphic novel, but of a collection of feuilletons, which he helpfully defines below. Dig the “Who…” paragraph, as he arrives at his own tumbling storytelling rhythm. It’s a great change of pace from his usual male obsessives, not that I can get enough of them. 

—Christopher Allen

Pretty as a Picture

When Christopher Allen asked me to contribute a review, my initial thoughts were: (1) I don’t have time; (2) when I do have time, my loyalties are to The Comics Journal; (3) I don’t read many comics or graphic novels; and (4) anyway, reviews aren’t my thing.  I believed that list damn convincing.  But he’d said nice things about my work, and when your sales figures are dwarfed by Sarah Palin’s dog’s manicurist’s memoirs, you need all the allies in the media you can get..  So I thought I’d review Eric Haven’s Aviatrix,which I meant to read anyway; but, literally, one moment later, I clicked from e-mail to The Comics Reporter, and there was Tom Spurgeon doing a better job than I could ever imagine.  (While I hesitate to speak for the Almighty, it sure looked like He was agreeing with me.)  Then I had another idea.  What if I reviewed the first non-graphic comic?  Whatever, Chris (more or less) said.

At least, identifying the FNGC wouldn’t require heavy time in the archives since, as far as I knew, I’d just invented the classification.  (If Marcel Duchamp could transform a snow shovel into art by declaring one to be such, I felt no shame in creating my own genre.)  And since I had beside my bed a book I wanted to plug – Sitting Shiva for Myself (Regent Press. $12.95), by Renee Blitz, the lap-swimmer at my pool with whom I have discussed Kafka – I figured why let the absence of any glyphic pen strokes forestall me from offing the proverbial dual birds.           

The more I thought about it, the more sense it made.  It seemed so datedly un-POMO, so small-minded and discriminatory to be a prisoner of such arbitrariness as “comic book” or “novel,” or “mischung der Werbetrager.”  In TCJ 300, no less a personage than Art Spiegelman, who has thought about comics as much as anyone, offers his belief that they should “deliver either an emotional charge… or a really new idea…”; and, really, isn’t that what any form of artistic expression is after?  When the words alone can’t provide the jolt, pictures may help; but if the words can deliver the juice, why should doodles or Rembrandt be required? And in Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud kvells about the collaboration that occurs between medium and audience in the “space” between the panels, and if space is so blinking important, why rely on other people’s pictures to fill it?  Readers who work their own imaginations will get all the wattage they desire by applying them to what goes on between – or above – Blitz’s feuilletons.  

Which, Webster’s Ninth Collegiate tells us, are short literary compositions of “familiar tone and reminiscent content.”  (Wikipedia adds they are usually  reflective, humorous, ironic, and, while focused “on cultural… social and moral issues,” “extremely subjective in their conclusions.”)  In “Shiva,” Blitz offers one hundred of the ironic, subjective little buggers in one hundred eighteen pages.[1]  Think of them as panels, with words-to-image relationships slightly more than those of Al Feldstein.  Think of a narrative no less plotted than Martin Vaughn-James’s The Cage, a recognized illustrated masterpiece, against whose walls I am still banging my head, trying to dislodge the sense within them.

Most of Blitz’s feuilletons are written in the first person.  The narrator is usually a woman.  (Those written in the third person are usually about a woman.  Those that are narrated by or are about a man usually concern his relationship with a woman.)  These women, nearly always unnamed, share enough characteristics that it is not irrational to think of them as the same.  (If you are with me in accepting the feuilletons as panels, think of them as having been drawn by an unsteady hand, as, for example, Aline Kominsky-Crumb’s wavering versions of herself.)  The woman is usually (if not always) Jewish.  She is usually in her seventies, alone, with two (or three) ex-husbands, discarded for their lack of tenderness or beauty or humor, or for fucking her best friend or not washing before bed.  She has an adult daughter (or two) who displeases her for one reason or another – drugs, Jesus, radical lesbianism, the grievances against her they still carry, like snails their shells.  She is from New York, a family of leftist butchers and furriers, and has attended Hunter College, when she was hot and young and still displayed the possibility of brilliance.  She lives in Berkeley, has had no career, may write.  She has (sometimes) a schizophrenic daughter who resides in Section Eight housing and smears feces on its walls.  She has (sometimes) an adored dog which shits on the four corners of the white towel on the bathroom floor.  She has been in psychoanalysis for five (or seven) years.  She eats chocolate croissants, deep fried egg rolls, Twinkies, Snickers, salami sandwiches, instead of crucifers and green leafy vegetables.  She is seen at home in a soiled, flannel nightgown, shredded house slippers, old, smelly robe, walking back and forth,” kvetching oy veh.”

Who, when she needs a housekeeper, hires an ex-Thai streetwalker, who may or may not steal her Fieldcrest linen.  Who, desiring companionship, invites into her home the entire One World Indignant Family commune, which had, for political reasons, split from the One World Happy Family commune.  (It does not work out.)  Who, during a psychic reading, hears her husband in the next room cracking chicken bones with his teeth, sucking out the marrow.  Who visits a doctor who seems to practice “obnoxious behavior,” not internal medicine.  Who hears “the sounds of death coming out of the walls at 3:30 a.m.”  Who recalls herself as “a sad young girl, apart, out on a limb, too young for mourning, in my own dream of childhood, my own teddy bear dream of toy drums and erasers, peppermint sticks and love.” Who believes conversation is “only there in the first place to charm, delight, enchant, open the portals away from self-disgust, wretchedness, rancidity.”  Who, “watching the time of day go by on the livingroom walls,” thinks “ no one wants to talk about that…  Maybe Marcel Proust, but he’s French, they talk about anything.”  Who reports herself “traumatized by sight seeing”; unable to know if she has seen the right things and had the right thoughts, she fears that if she “told someone what my good time was, they would run from me, hilarious.”  Who asks herself “what have you learned in a lifetime of reading, thinking, conversation, hanging on the phone with mere acquaintances for hours, 1000 Buddhist Sermons on Nothingness, Shakespeare’s Sonnets, and your subscription to The New Yorker which, by the way, has run out and needs renewing.”  Who instructs us “if you want to write, just remember… no describe, no explain, no narrate, yes to ambiance yes to music, only an impression, no certainty, elusive, disappearing like the Cheshire Cat, like life.”

Sometimes, my wife Adele, the psychoanalytic critic formerly known to my readers as “Ruth Delhi,” says, when dialogue between the characters takes over these pieces, it is impossible to tell who is speaking.  Differences break down.  Boundaries dissolve.  You feel the need each person has for the other – wife and husband, mother and daughter – despite the horrors accrued between them.  Having the relationship is better than the alternative – is preferable to the void.  Blitz is, Adele believes, “a genius at what she does.”             

But what about pictures, you ask.  Well, what about “those beat-up middle aged Japanese waitresses tortured by failed love, their black mascara bleeding onto their anguished faces, black hair coiffed in the Japanese manner, red kimonos with huge redflower giant-size poisonous poppy petals open to the ultimate swoon of death, vulvas choking into your throat, everything working together, the sash, the cummerbund, the little flapping pack on their tush running with small feet”?  What about the woman with “the rigors of age upon me, the dowager’s hump, the turkey neck, no waistline, flab all over,” hiding in a blanket, trying to conceal herself with red silk panties from the inquiring eyes of her ex-husband’s other ex-wife’s teenage daughter, detailed by her mother to reassure her of the narrator’s decrepitude?  Hey, they’re there in blinking black-and-white.

In Shiva Blitz circles sorrow, peaks beneath its covers, measures it, pinches the flesh between its ribs, embraces it, yet resists its call to utter despair.  One laughs at the grotesques she reveals at the same time one winces.  One is delighted by the rhythm of her sentences, the flash of her ideas, as they pound like nails into one’s foot.  She has compressed the ordinary within her vise to highlight life’s irreducible absurd.  She has polished the commonplace with sparkling language and dissonant punctuation and Thelonious Monk’s angular glide.  She has turned her lyrical ear to loneliness, her anointing eye to grief.

Blitz’s book has been self-published.  Until now, as far as I or Google know, it has gone unreviewed.  She has been solicited to give no readings.  Yet I recommend Shiva highly.  Blitz is a profound artist – serious, unique – giving us her best.  Check it out.  Books without pictures – BOP! POW! – they aren’t just for egg-headed intellectuals any more.

[1]Anti-Semitic literary critics of fin-de-siecle Europe found the form well-suited for Jews, whom, they believed, lacked the capacity to fully analyze and deeply understand the world.  And how could we, asked Blitz in one of our conversations.  Being locked out, how could we understand the world’s truth and meaning?

Bob Levin is the author of The Best Ride to New York (novel), Fully Armed (biographic fiction), The Pirates and the Mouse (non-fiction), Outlaws, Rebels, Pirates, Freethinkers & Pornographers (essays), and Most Outrageous (non-fiction). His short stories and articles have appeared in a variety of publications, including Massachusetts Review, Carolina Quarterly, Karamu, Spin, New Republic, and Cavalier. His writings have won awards from Pushcart Press, CCLM, the San Francisco Bar Association, and the NEA. He is a long time contributing writer to The Comics Journal. 

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