Books I’d Trade My Lunch For 1: Significant Objects, edited by Rob Walker and Joshua Glenn (100 contributors)

*[Series note: Well, there’s that Erasmus quote, right? I don’t think I ever actually traded my lunch for books as a kid, but I did stash the lunch money. I knew that books were expensive because they equalled exactly three lunches, give or take.]

When you hear someone putting a value on a sentimental object, it’s usually not a comfortable thing.  Someone has passed away and your trying to liquidate the estate for fair division; maybe it’s just been sitting in your drawer for twenty years too long and the money would be handy; maybe you’ve had the sudden urge to divest yourself of objects that are slowing you down. When you hear the price mentioned, speculatively or with certainty, you feel the contrast. You might as well be seeing two things in split screen in that moment: a kind of vision or aura of what that object means with all its associated human connections, and a pile of cold, hard dollars and cents. It never makes sense. Those two things are parallel lines that never cross, even if you make a deal.

If you don’t know about the “experiment” undertaken by Rob Walker and Joshua Glenn, hosted on their Hilobrow website, and you probably don’t, their new book might repulse you for a second or two. It seems to be all about strange, found objects and the price people are willing to pay. You may even think it’s a bit of a scam. Because with each object is a fictionalized but just about believable story relating to that object meant to increase its value. And the book even clearly presents the bottom line: were people taken in? How much did they pay? If that were really what the book was about, it’d be no better than a weekend flea market with a few clever pickpockets moving smoothly through the crowd.

That’s not it. Fortunately, the book contains plenty of explanation to dip into or scrutinize at will. It’s a study that’s profoundly interesting because it’s as much about storytelling as the intangible and non-quantifiable side of the role that objects play in our lives. Walker and Glenn invited the submission of objects with crafted stories attached, a communal project that brought new writers, famous writers, and the generally fascinated out of the woodwork to participate. The goal was to try to measure the ways in which associations raised the perceived value of these objects.

So, as you might imagine, this led to some pretty radical high-wire acts of the literary variety. In these short-form stories, contributors really pushed themselves to craft evocative prose, bizarre and unexpected incidents, and emotional resonance. But what happened, whether they realized it or not, is that the writers ended up telling so much about their own sliding scale for appreciating objects that Significant Objects produces a social biography on two fronts. After reading a few entries, which can be read in any order, a plus, you get the gist of how the writers feel about objects as well as the strange factors that might have influenced e-bay bidders to pay more for this than that. I personally find the autobio aspect the most compelling evidence because it seems whimsical. There’s an underlying principle among the contributors, a silent one: if they bothered to send these entries in, they find objects fascinating and were intrigued by trying to pin that down a little.

Walker and Glenn truly tapped into a wellspring of very human responses when they proposed the project, which became so successful that it spread into three “volumes”.  Out of these, 100 examples were selected for the book, published by Fantagraphics in April 2012. The book spans genres in its appearance; it resembles a miniaturized coffee table book light enough to carry around, and you’ll want to do that, too. Dual colorful cover designs to choose from highlight the nature of the book: you choose, explore, make connections between objects and stories that you find inside. One feature that’s particularly evocative is the use of gradient symbols to categorize and organize the featured objects: fossil, evidence, totem, talisman, and idol. There’s an extra avenue to explore if you wish: why does an object fit into one category rather than another, and how do they overlap? And is it the features of the object itself, or the way in which the contributing writer has interpreted the object in their story that influences that decision?

The categories take us back to the anthropological roots at work here and remind us that within incredibly urban settings, we still instinctually react to the patterns of life established by our ancestors. Even the irreligious may find themselves treating an heirloom or symbolic object in a religious way. A common theme arising in many of the stories might be termed something like the “effective moment”. In essence, many stories ask the question “what incident would be necessary to imbue an object like this with quirky or astonishingly deep meaning?”. And the wheels turn toward possible answers. The answers all form their own possible universes. The upshot is that many of these fascinating tales are about poignant, tragic, or memorable moments in time as much as the objects that channel them.

As the book warns us “artificially increasing the subjective value of objects will most likely lead to unintended consequences” and one of the obvious “consequences” of the Significant Objects “study” is great storytelling. Artist Gary Panter’s contribution also points to another “unintended consequence” of the experiment: the expansion of the grey area between function and art. Many of these objects are purely ornamental, but quite a few also have some function attributed to them originally. Like the found objects of the modernist and postmodernist art movements, these objects, re-staged as new finds, take on a certain aura of possible meaning, and this meaning is at least partly shaped by the person who selected and placed them in the public eye. Gary Panter chooses a well-worn Dacor dive-mask with some perilously angled clamps that suggest the intense pressure of oxygen, depth, and strange adventures. The tale Panter weaves is entirely unpredictable: the detailed construction of a monster hoax at a lake by a young person, ingeniously staged and enacted with great relish, featuring the diving mask. No spoilers here, but the lines between fiction and reality blur for our narrator just as smoothly as the lines between “real” objects and semi-fictional narratives blur in the work as a whole. Dive into this book enough and you come to one conclusion: that line does not matter. Significance matters, and that has nothing to do with accuracy. The role of memory, and of re-imagining events, trumps every time.

Jonathan Lethem’s Missouri Shot Glass gave me pause. I felt I ought to prepare myself for this one since I had realized by now that this book could jump into strange territory without much warning. It should have occurred to me what a variety of styles and vantages the writers had at their disposal to suit their vision of their chosen object. Lethem plows into a stream of self-reflexive monologue from an intricate persona before you can even get through the first sentence. It’s a masterpiece of compression among many sterling examples of short prose. A distinct sub-category of the significant objects take us on a journey; this “totem” does also. It takes us back to the narrator’s Missouri, in memory, but it’s just as much a story about the vagaries of publication as a geographical portrait. You don’t expect to meet hoards of aspiring writers in a cornfield, but Lethem’s narrator assures us of a hidden world of rural prosifiers that have pushed him, shot-glass in hand, toward reassessment. Another common feature to some of these stories that Lethem brings out with a literal and figurative reductionism: the reflective, often sharp-edged memoir. You might assume from this that familiar objects, in fact, fill us with regret. Why we hold onto them becomes the great mystery.

It would probably take a literary genius of the highest caliber to sound the heights and depths of human experience as thoroughly as these hundred contributors do in their composite testament to the lost and found. That may be yet another “unintended consequence” of Significant Objects. In their analysis of the rise and fall of sales for these objects, all placed on Ebay with tale to sink or swim, Glenn and Walker come to some startling conclusions that really raise more questions than they answer. For one thing, the objects with stories by well-known writers did not necessarily sell for a higher price. Also, objects considered “talismans”, meaning “magical, lucky, and/or alive” fetched the greatest haul. Maybe this means that people are still, deep down, attracted more to certain types of objects than others when it comes to subjective value. Or maybe those kinds of objects just give them more to talk about. That’s the last thing to notice about this handbook to the bizarre, if we’re stating the obvious: there’s a very dynamic relationship between objects and what we want to say about them. It doesn’t take that much encouragement to get us talking. If we keep things, and even revere things, like a Rhino figurine, jar of marbles, Start Wars cards or a Hawk ashtray, it’s not because someone else told us that they have value, usually, but because we know there’s a story behind them. Significant Objects tells a small part of that very big story.

To learn more about Significant Objects, which is still an ongoing project, visit the Hilobrow website here and Fantagraphics here.

Leaping Tall Buildings Presents Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams in Conversation at Housing Works Bookstore and Cafe, July 17, 2012

I wrote a chronicle of the historical reunion of these two comics greats who haven’t been known to be very chatty to one another over the years, but they got together to support the ground-breaking book Leaping Tall Buildings, by Seth Kushner and Chris Irving, and also to support the local AIDS impact charity Housing Works. The topic was social relevancy in comics and the whole thing was sparky and intense. Visit the article, eye-popping photos by Seth Kushner and a complete audio track embedded at Trip City, home of cool stuff, here.

Comics that Punch You in the Face 1: MARATHON by Boaz Yakin and Joe Infurnari

Comics that Punch You in the Face 1: Marathon by Boaz Yakin and Joe Infurnari

On the same day that historic elections rocked the capital in Greece, a graphic novel was released that makes history of its own, retooling an well-worn and often vague mythical memory of where the Olympian event known as the marathon actually came from. If you ask people on the street, the school kids are most likely to remember that the marathon arose out of  a particular battle on the plains of Marathon and a crucial message bearer who crossed them between Athens and Sparta. The average adult might get confused and think that the messenger was actually called “marathon”. You get the idea. Popular memory, passed around one too many times like a weak xerox, knows how to drain the drama out of a good story.

Boaz Yakin rediscovered the drama in this story and found it shocking enough to think it deserved a good screenplay and film attention, but after frustrations in bringing it off as a film, he adapted it to what many fans would say is the next medium most suited to heavy action sequences: the graphic novel. Action sequences would be necessary, too, to set the stage of this epic struggle between a returning tyrant, Persian emperor, and a peoples’ movement to save their city. Like any great epic it comes down to one great man with a small group of highly devoted and brave people behind him. The unusual thing about this epic, particularly for the period, 490 BC, is that this man was a slave without any type of social status except for the acquired notoriety associated with his athletic abilities.

Sound like Gladiator? Well, that was a pretty good story too, for some of the same reasons. Yakin brings his in-depth knowledge of screen writing and film directing to the graphic novel script to pull off difficult characterization, pacing, and moments of emotional impact. Not to mention a remarkably even-toned use of dialogue which zooms right over the plate in terms of common parlance and a nod to historical context. This story was not one to be undertaken lightly. For one thing, it’s full of complicated names, interrelated characters, a variety of geographical locations, and modes of life that a reader is not likely to have ever encountered before in such detail. To make all this fly, Yakin pares things down the basics and works hard to balance the epic battle scenes with more episodic elements that help you get to know the main characters and care about them. One other thing: the narrative structure is highly inventive. It moves around, but not without guidance for the reader. We encounter our hero Eucles the Athenian messenger, in a “present” moment when he is setting off not on one “marathon” run, but the first of several that will push him beyond endurance, and encounter the formative experiences of his life in flashback sequences as he runs. These increase in historical detail and significance as Eucles forms a complicated relationship with the rulers of Athens, who he serves. This structure is very effective in keeping up a driving pace in the story as you root for Eucles under increasingly difficult conditions and you realize what exactly this unassuming hero is made of.

Joe Infurnari, a multiple Eisner-award nominated artist, brings a depth of experience to this project equal to Yakin’s. His book Mush! Sled Dogs, particularly, shows off his ability to create compelling character studies and a sense of natural environment. If there’s one more thing to notice about Infurnari’s work before diving into Marathon, it’s that he knows perhaps more than most comics artists working today how to handle and depict motion. This made Marathon an ideal project for him and he for it. A reader’s experience of this graphic narrative, all 188 pages of it on high-gauge paper, is totally defined and guided by this sense of motion. Yakin’s narrative sets that up, and asks for a world of speed. Infurnari accomplishes this through the use of small, liberally scattered but carefully placed panels depicting bodies in motion, particularly feet, as they move over hostile and unreliable surfaces to the skitter of sound-effects. For the reader, this does give a cinematic feel of motion and sound. But it’s probably the larger motion panels that are most impressive and give the sense of an epic in full-flight. Infurnari uses a trademark swoop in battle-scenes, viewed from a number of angles and distances to emphasize violent action, and doesn’t shy away from the gore necessary in a historical piece like this.

The comic is composed in a combination of sepia and black and white tones, the sepia most often used to highlight our central character in the often dense crowd scenes of running competitions, or the frenetic large-scale battle sequences that depict struggles between the Athenian army and the invading Persian imperial alliance. Infurnari uses fine, cross-hatching, and layered ink lines to give an impressive amount of detail and expressiveness to clothing, human figures, and facial expressions within this limited palette. It’s worth noticing that the ways in which a modern enthusiast encounters the culture of ancient Greece mainly takes only two forms: they encounter it through statuary or through the famous “Grecian Urns” celebrated by Keats.

Sculpture that survives is often in pale stone and any coloration or tint given to those carvings have long since disappeared, giving us a single-tone image with evocative texture. Grecian Urns are typically composed of a dark background with tableaux images in profile provided narrative moments in history or mythology and use earth-tones for coloration. The point is, we know Greek culture through sepia and black and white already and so a story set in motion in that palette is particularly resonant for us. It was a great choice for a historical piece grounded in the gritty, realistic suffering and determination of a remarkable slave boy become a national savior.

Infurnari’s gift for the physicality of his characters comes off with particular verve in close-up battle scenes. One of my favorite confines an small army of pursuing foes and a couple of tragically brave defenders in a gnarled, dense wood on a mountain side. The close confines of the wood draw attention to the intense motion of the combatants and make the struggle seem more personal and more devastating in physical terms. Infurnari also has a kind of genius for pacing in depicting struggle. Like Yakin, he pares down the unneccessary and resists the repetitive, which is a danger when dealing with a text like this one. Even the most compelling high-budget action film fails to grasp our attention if shots and angles are simply too similar episode after episode.

To combat this, the artist struggles with invention. You would find it difficult to locate two pages where the panel layout is overly similar. He employs a pretty vast array of panel sizes and arrangements to compliment the story telling. Infurnari uses very few full-page spreads, but when he does, they have a profound impact on the storytelling. Eucles, near the end of his relentless ordeal, appears almost saintly, washed in a white-out background, suggesting a kind of transformation he’s undertaken through commitment to his cause: saving Athens from tyrannical rule or abandonment by the populace.

First Second Books produces all-ages comics and this graphic narrative plies a confident course through historical realism to create a universal hero tale. There’s just enough grit and gore to make you feel like it all really happened, while making sure this is a story that younger readers, say from high-school upward, could fathom. This is living proof that an all-ages comic can definitely “punch you in the face”. Don’t underestimate Marathon: it will put you through the ringer. It’s unique combination of tight storytelling, intense motion, and emotional realism creates a total comics experience that gives more mainstream hero comics a run for their money (you can take or leave the pun).

To learn more about Marathon, Boaz Yakin and Joe Infurari, visit First Second Books here or Marathon’s page here.

Catching up: TripCity.net articles, Leaping Tall Buildings, Cinco de Sandra, The Stan Lee Universe

A few TripCity.net illustrated articles that date from April and May 2012 include:

Leaping Tall Buildings at BookCourt in Brooklyn, a launch of the fantastic chronicle of comics traditions by Seth Kushner and Chris Irving, found here with pictures by Seth Kushner.

Cinco de Sandra, a chronicle of the beat happening performance in Dupont Circle, DC that took Trip City, and this reporter on the road (or train at least), here.

A spotlight on the new book by Danny Fingeroth and Roy Thomas, The Stan Lee Universe at BookCourt in Brooklyn, a fabulous tour of a life in comics, here.

 

 

 

Jen Ferguson’s Delirium Imaginarium at Brooklyn Oenology on TripCity.net

A consideration of the role of the painter-storyteller examining phenomenal artist Jen Ferguson’s installation opening at Brooklyn Oenology wine tasting room with images from the show. Find it here on TripCity.net, a Brooklyn-filtered literary arts salon in digital form.