November 30, 2012 § Leave a Comment
The story of cocaine — and the drug war itself — is mixed up with our own history of industry and medicine, as well as our compulsion to squash other cultures.
Writer/artist Ricardo Cortes, who most recently gained notoriety as the illustrator of the questionable classic picture book, “Go The F*** To Sleep,” has taken it upon himself to, as clearly as possible, relate cultural connections in a way should leave plenty of question marks floating in your head.
Tracing the origins of coffee and cola, and relating the scientific effort to isolate the source of their invigorating properties — caffeine — Cortes moves into similar territory with coca, the plant which is used to manufacture cocaine.
Cortes manages to put all this information into proper context, though. Rather than is olate anti-coca mania as a reaction to a specific drug, he documents the previous hysteria against caffeine and the way such attitudes were used not only to control the behavior of children, but to direct racist attitudes toward African and Jewish Americans, and he looks at cocaine’s early days as a miracle drug.
In the case of coca, Cortes lays out documentation for a collusion between government and the Coca Cola Company to outlaw a thousands-of-years old tradition of coca leaf chewing and completely redirect the rights to grow the plant to Coke.
It’s a bit of cultural rape that South American countries have not really been able to override — the United States continually stops any attempt at protest — and it allows the government to grow its own cocaine for use in the development of pesticides and biological wea pons for the war on drugs.
Take into account that this is a picture book, though — Cortes’ presentation is not the typical dense, non-fiction work, but a highly illustrated one, where emotions and im pact are present in brief graphical terms, dancing with the harder history, and with a meticulous bibliography.
Regardless of your feelings about cocaine, Cortes has created a powerful retelling of cultural bullying on the part of the United States and, taken as an example of a wider view toward the world, the book should be mandatory reading in at least middle school history classes.
November 30, 2012 § 1 Comment
It would be nice if our transformation from British Colonies to that shining beacon of freedom was as orderly as we make it sound. It was a messy business, and not just in terms of warfare. We couldn’t agree with others back then, and our struggles against government and fellow citizens haven’t changed all that much. Most people can still be united by what they are against more than what they stand for. And minorities still get the short shrift — just modernized versions of the same old discrimination.
Former Village Voice cartoonist Stan Mack lends a snarky studiousness to this tale, which presents his 1994 magnum opus in a present that reflects the strands that reach back to the American Revolution. In Mack’s presentation, the war against England was one of elitists who had to sell the difference between self-rule and a monarchy to regular people in order to build an army — and then rig the system in their own favor after the war was won.
And if it sucked to be a white guy who owned no property, being female or black was even worse. It was hard for them to embrace the rhetoric of the American victory after it had revealed itself as so opportunist in allowing the upper classes to seize their advantages.
From George Washington to Mitt Romney, it took us years to get here. Where, oh, where is the modern Daniel Shays? Somewhere at an Occupy action or sitting behind a computer, hacking into websites and calling himself “Anonymous,” I imagine. It’s certainly not the new iteration of the Tea Party and its strange rebels as political puppets existence.
Mack’s history is a vital and entertaining one. It captures Americans as radicals and wild cards and assures that rebellion is in our blood, even if it must be against each other.
October 5, 2012 § Leave a Comment
Mitt Romney: Charm school dropout
Your view of whether Romney won the first presidential debate probably has a lot to do with your feelings on what constitutes a victory in that situation. If you’re scoring on how many times Romney bullied the moderator, it was a clear slam dunk. If you taking the actual validity of his statements, it’s not as clear. His spiels were as filled with distortions and total lies as ever, but the strategy of stating those with a maximum of testosterone in as pushy a way possible seemed to work. If someone shoves it in your face, it must be true. Hell, his forcefulness had me half convinced that the sky was falling and Obama was poking it with a stick, as well as scared at the thought of him sitting in meetings with foreign leaders.
It’s always a good idea to step beyond the bluster and do some fact-checking, which is pretty simple in the 21stCentury. You can fact check all you want now — there’s this good AP one http://bit.ly/QJNM7J the PolitiFact one (bit.ly/UH4FRU) and the FactCheck one (bit.ly/QJoYQz). They all call out both candidates and show that “winning” a debate has more to do with demeanor and what the viewers are looking for than substance.
I can only say that presidential election time works with the same speed as Narnia time. Not even two weeks ago, television pundits were burying their heads and screaming “Sweet Jesus!” at the man (bit.ly/WjVARI) and the National Review pretty much stuck a fork in him. (bit.ly/QXWq34). Just the day before the debates, it seemed as though the more Ohioans encountered him, the less they liked him. Whether the public spectacle of Romney ignoring Miss Manners help help him in the long run? Personally, I think that sort of behavior flies once, but it’s a long haul till November.
Nothing to see here, move aside
Standing behind the white guy in any given historical situation is becoming a thankless task, because whatever wider gifts he might have to offer the world, there is always a personal nightmare lurking somewhere in there.
Take Thomas Jefferson. Enlightened forefather, blah, blah, blah, there’s always been the Sally Hemmings stuff sitting around and the various interpretations historians and others tack onto it. Now there’s new research that has come out about Jefferson, pulling from his own notes and letters and revealing him to be somewhat less than the enlightened man we’d hoped (bit.ly/ODqUvi).
The correspondence reveals a fellow who while initially opposing slavery, suddenly began slobbering at the mouth when he felt firsthand the amount of money that he could make by getting children he owned to work in a nail factory, and how much money he was making each year by each body born into the slave family. Also revealed is that he wasn’t averse to hav ing his slaves whipped or punished, that they lived in a shanty and that Jefferson’s psychology seemed such that if he put himself at a personal distance from the inhu man ity, he didn’t have to feel guilty about it. Add to that the passages in his letters that revealed this side of him that had been suppressed in our history books since the 1940s — the deciding historian apparently
felt this information could be ignored in favor of a fig urative and literal white wash — and we have a big conspiracy on our hands to perpetuate the myth of the benevolent slave master.
Sorry, Mr. Jefferson, but I’m tired of giving you the benefit of the doubt in this matter.
November 21, 2009 § Leave a Comment
Columbus may not have actually discovered the Americas, but his voyage changed their landscape forever — and divided history in such a way that the history of the two continents prior to his arrival is only currently being introduced into popular history.
At a talk today at Williams College journalist Charles C. Mann will focus on “The Pristine Myth,” a term referring to the idea that Christopher Columbus landed on an untouched wilderness that begged for European management of it and the people living there.
In Mann’s book “1491,” he argues that not only was the New World “not untouched” but it was heavily touched by the native populace. However, he says, the impacts of their stewardship of the land is still felt today, and their methods are worth investigation to correct ecological missteps pulled from the European tradition.
“You had a whole lot of people here — millions and millions of people — on separate paths of development, and it seems to me implausible that all these people over all these years would not have come up with anything that was worth our paying attention to,” he said during a recent interview.
Mann’s research concluded that the Americas were far more densely populated than we now believe, with diverse societies and inhabitants that were more sophisticated in sustainable land management than their European conquerors. Mann also uncovered advances in math and science made by the Aztecs, Incas and Mayans that were equitable to advances in Europe and Asia — a revelation that speaks to the idea that what passed for primitivism to the European eye was entirely skin deep.
Mann cites 150 years of anthropology and archaeology that have released a tidal wave of knowledge about the pre-Columbian world, but he also credits an unusual source — the conquerors themselves.
“The immediate conquerors wrote pretty interesting history,” Mann said. “If you go to the original Spanish sources and the original Colonial sources — English, French, Spanish, whatever — you’ll find all kinds of stuff that dropped out of our history books, and so it’s really a surprise.
“Sixteenth-century Spaniards knew how to count and knew what they were seeing to a large extent, and they wrote about it. They described the capital of the Aztec empire as the largest and finest that they had ever seen — a whole bunch of them describe it that way. At some point you have to give careful to the idea that it may have actually been the largest and finest city they had ever seen.” « Read the rest of this entry »
June 20, 2009 § Leave a Comment
As Kyle Baker explains in the new soft-cover collection of his “Nat Turner” graphic biography, the focus of his work exists, for so many, on the fringes of history. While other pioneers in black history and the fight for equal rights are equally accessed by school children, Nat Turner sits out on the edge.
This is a testament not only to his danger symbolically and politically, but also the real danger he posed to real people. It is a complicated tale of someone who might have been a hero if not for the bloodbath he washed himself in — given the realities of his story, it’s possible to have sympathy, but it’s hard to have admiration.
Nat Turner’s Rebellion took place in Virginia in 1831 over a two-day period, at first populated by a some other trusted slaves to which dozens of others attached themselves. The action involved the murders and executions of 55 white people, half of whom were children, the result of a march through the plantations and even homes of poor whites. It was a slaughter that appeared out of nowhere — after years and years of historical build-up.
Baker mixes largely wordless sequential segments with small tracts pulled from Turner’s own words. Nat Turner appears very intelligent, but the labyrinthine and arcane quality of his ramblings often come off as someone lost in a fiery haze where the heat of his personal history has enflamed the intellect that he was able to secretly nurture. In this presentation, Baker has concocted a violent and disturbing Southern gothic tale from the point of view of the slaves — a dark mirror that shows the sickness that festered within them, one borne of the cruelty of their white masters.
All together, “Nat Turner” comes off like a fever dream pulled from history and the real movement of enslaved soldiers as an apocalyptic, Biblical plague unleashed on the God-fearing Christian tyrants of the plantations. Turner’s justice against these people and their system is a swift revenge with no mercy, not even for the innocent children — and that’s where his quest truly becomes unsettling. Like the Old Testament God, he doles out punishment for transgressions with no qualifiers, no degrees of sin allowed into the equation. If you can understand the history of cruelty and dehumanization that lead to such a fury, if you can understand the hate and violence born of such a background, it is still hard to rectify the slaughter of children with the greater issue of human dignity — and that’s a dark challenge to the reader.
There are plenty of non-fiction and biographical works coming out in graphic novel forms these days, but none so furious, passionate and complex as Baker’s work here. He draws the readers in and forces them to confront the reality of history, beyond the cold analysis of facts and chronologies. It’s a hugely poetic work capturing part of the dark truth of American history — one that reveals it as ultimately complicated.
October 27, 2008 § Leave a Comment
There was little chance that the book “After 9/11″ could be anything other than a depressing affair and that’s pretty much what we have here, though it’s at least incredibly informative even as it creates a thud in your soul. It’s a wonderfully researched and extremely well-realized piece of graphic non-fiction, but its topic — a seemingly never-ending war that amounts to a list of atrocities and missteps — can overtake the most vibrant creative energy through the reality of its current hold on our future history.
Think of it this way — what began as a president’s attempt to carve out a place in history for himself has extended far beyond the confines of the original plan. The next president will likely be victim to the dismal field of slaughter — even as he promises “victory,” John McCain can’t actually express what that means. You can’t blame him — not one person in the Bush administration has seemed to have any realistic idea of what victory means either.
“After 9/11″ begins on September 12, 2001, with the presidential response to the destruction of the World Trade Center. For a moment, it seems as if President Bush will, as he so often likes to say, “stay the course” — “the course” being the hunt for Osama Bin Laden and justice for the victims of the attack. It’s seven years later and we still haven’t gotten Bin Laden and that’s largely because rather than “stay the course,” the Bush administration ended up creating a completely different course to stay on. “After 9/11″ captures that moment of bait and switch and documents that, as with any successful swindle, what seems spontaneous is the result of meticulous pre-planning.
The book doesn’t indulge in its own editorial proclamations, leaving that to the talking heads of the era. What results is a strange sort of history. On one hand, the book is a numbing, relentless tally of the violence and deaths that have become a daily truth in Iraq — through statistics and illustration, Jacobson and Colon present the devastating cost in human life amongst the Iraqi population and drive home the point that there is no good side to such a massive loss of human life.
On the other is a litany of excuses from the various players of the Bush administration, assurances that the images we are looking at are not what we are actually looking at. The Bush tactic seems to have been that we can’t trust our own eyes.
If nothing else, “After 9/11″ documents how much we’ve managed to pack into a two-term presidency. If it feels like Bush has been in office for decades that’s because there’s been at least 20 years worth of controversy and horror. As such, there are some aspects to the Bush years that aren’t given the attention they deserve, for instance Judith Knight’s clinging to Chalabi’s lies and the failure of the press to become fact checkers in the lead-up to the war, as well as the use of patriotism as a weapon to silence opponents of the war. It would also be nice if there was an index, it’s desperately needed — and the dates covered on the top of every page, a helpful time line for thumbing through.
But these are minor quibbles when balanced against the massive achievement of providing context and order to the events in Iraq. It’s a globby mess of information for best-informed citizenry and “After 9/11″ is a great attempt to organize the information into a clear chronology. It’s a solid resource for anyone attempting to wrap their brains around the quagmire of activity that begs for structure, especially students who might seek clarity about the events of the last seven years of their lives.
August 15, 2008 § Leave a Comment
Using the structure of a blues song as its own structure — and taking the kind of legendary subject matter of the music itself — “Bluesman” is both a a studied examination of the lives of blues performers in the 1920s and an infectious crime tale taking place within that sleazy underbelly.
Lem Taylor travels the south with his older partner in music, two men on the run in service to their creative souls. It’s a desperate high that causes them to tramp around, trespassing to get a night’s sleep and impersonating ministers to get a free meal. These are petty crimes, little transgressions against society required for survival.
A life of charming crime that translates into performance bravado takes a turn for the worst after a triumphant show at Shug’s roadhouse, when the pair become involved with two women and their questionable acquaintances. Following the devastating events of one night, Lem finds himself on a flight for his life, while the local sheriff stares down the deadly barrel of racism, a signal to the redneck royalty of the area that blacks exist to be punished for the crimes of their social masters.
Author Rob Vollmar mixes historical scholarship of his scenario with great characterization — the characters are as vivid as the world Vollmar evokes and they swirl around the twelve-bar lilt of legends, eventually transforming the dirty reality into another mysterious tale of blues musicianship. Spanish artist Pablo G. Callejo is a superstar here, with his stark wood cut style black and white rendering the terror and obsession related through Vollmar’s story into certain emotional terms.
“Bluesman” takes the best qualities of the music of the era — the humanity and the mythological ambiance — and translates them brilliantly into a suspense drama well worth seeking out.
August 8, 2008 § Leave a Comment
It’s hard to have much sympathy for the quivering little dictator, J. Edgar Hoover, and Rick Geary’s sober retelling of the man’s life doesn’t offer much to change your mind. By focusing on the fractured psychology behind Hoover’s strengths, as well as his weaknesses, Geary paints a picture of the ways in which people over-compensate in their struggles against their own demons — and how they align themselves to systems beyond their psyche in order to justify the demons.
In “J. Edgar Hoover: A Graphic Biography,” Geary traces the legendary FBI chief’s rise to power as a Washington, D.C., native and son of a Department of the Interior employee. As Geary points out, Hoover was by no means a typical American, but he grabbed those virtues and held them close as tenets by which to build a career — whether the embrace was out of love or control is harder to say. For all his rhetoric pushing for ordinary American values, he seemed to have no connection with the people who lived by them — or people in general. With the exception of a few close male friends — innuendoes accepted, but unproved — Hoover comes off as apart from the rest of the world.
So little of his personal life remained veiled that Geary can only really work with his public professional life, and these facts provide clues to the inner workings of Hoover, while offering about as many hard answers about the complicated psychology of the man as they do about his possible homosexuality. He was orderly, he was a harsh taskmaster, he liked glory but did not like to admit so. He knew how to get publicity through propaganda filtered to Americans via popular culture and he really disliked communists.
As with any political examination, there are plenty of lines to be drawn between then and now. In Hoover’s case, a 40-year practice of spying on private citizens, after being granted disgustingly broad powers to do so by Franklin Delano Roosevelt, certainly qualifies. It was Hoover’s indulgence that provided Joe McCarthy with the names and information that painted such a dark moment in our nation’s history. Hoover also used this information to control hiring at colleges, as well as stalk members of the Communist Party in the effort to destroy their personal lives.
Obviously, this is not a glowing summation of the man’s career. Geary has been given another opportunity to shine doing what he does best with the tale of Hoover — and as a work aimed toward young adult readers, he provides an early tour in the subtle corruption that power can lead to. Hoover’s misuse of the authority handed to him in order to further his personal ideologies at the cost of citizen’s rights is something that ought never be forgotten — the same story happens often enough and it’s happening right now and Geary is doing his part to keep the warning alive and the citizenry cautious.
June 11, 2008 § Leave a Comment
Why do Americans love censorship so? We fight against fascists and dictators and communists, and yet we revere John Adams and the sedition act as a model for dealing with words and works we find uncomfortable. From Dixie-land music to hip hop, popular culture has been at the forefront of the threat against American culture. One of the ugliest — and least documented — movements in American censorship has been in regard to comic books, a recurring effort that resulted in the gutting of an industry populated by Jews, immigrants and women in the 1950s.
In “The Ten-Cent Plague,” author David Hajdu documents the dismantling of an American art form, where moral concerns — often misguided ones — bullied a vibrant, street level, populist creative format that eventually blossomed into the biggest selling entertainment in America, read by kids and adults.
Before the 1950s, comic books were not synonymous with superheroes — instead, it was populated by a multitude of genres, as well as pure drama and comedy, and millions were sold each month. Hajdu reveals the medium’s contribution to the post-1950s culture of America where, even as aboveground culture continued to maintain a choke hold on creativity, alternative and youth culture wanted something more than the prefabricated, canned artistry that was offered to them. Comics helped build that sensibility.
Almost from the beginning, comics were derided and fought by segments of the population — sometimes, it was assaulted by arbiters of the national morality, but other times by the judges of the national literacy and many others. Hajdu tells the sprawling tale of a creative industry’s fight against its opponents and of the gritty characters that helped build its success. Not only is it a history of a derided segment of American publishing, it’s also an examination of the American desire to limit exposure to dangerous ideas — and to some citizen’s betrayal of the principles on which the country has stood.
Although the final battle was in the 1950s, the fight against censorship was an ongoing one through decades — it was a process of chipping away that ran concurrently with any and all other efforts to censor other art forms that cropped up through the years.
In post World War II, ordinary citizens were burning comic books in bonfires — to the sharper social critics of the time, it was a sad commentary that only several years earlier, Americans were appalled by Nazis who did the same. When the fight against the scourge of comic books moved past the realm of pop psychology and religious fundamentalism and those sphere’s attempts to explain juvenile delinquency, it moved into the halls of government. Parallel to the McCarthy hearings, comic book creators were called into question not as enemies of the state, but as immoral scum. By the mid ’50s, the moralistic Comics Code Authority was enacted as a self-regulating device to get the government off the industry’s back, but it doubled as hari kari which was to dismantle the form.
By the time the code took control in the 1950s, it was used as a strong arm to put publishers out of business, to incite fear of prosecution for distributors and news stands and to push a conservative social propaganda in the stories. Comics involving Black Americans were often censored — romance comics, once a safe haven for tales of independent females became a shill for the institution of marriage as the result of all emotional journeys. No political criticism was allowed, no questioning of authority, so sexual deviancy — only good, American, Christian values. Consider-ing comic books were the num-ber one form of entertainment amongst American youth, is it any surprise that a decade later, youth would explode into a revolution against adult control of their entertainment?
If there is one hero in the book, it is William Gaines, publisher of EC Comics and, most importantly, Mad magazine. If Mad seems a little trite and superfluous now, that is because we live in the world Mad created, a world where satire and criticism are commonplace. In the 1950s, these were far less the norm, but that didn’t stop Gaines from pursuing the entirely American value of free speech. With actions that would make Thomas Paine proud, Gaines fought Senate committees and censors, using his publications for a political voice to kids who had no say otherwise. Gaines publicly and valiantly compared the Red Scare censors to the very Communists they were against and comes off as a fallible but brave American hero who ended up inspiring more American youth through Mad than any of the now-forgotten political shills who tried to tear him down.
“The Ten-Cent Plague” is an important and entertaining book, documenting the lively personalities who helped build the history of comic books, which are as important to American popular culture as movies are, though still maligned due, largely, to the efforts of the censors. The residue has not totally dissipated in half a century, but through the rise of graphic novels, it’s finally happening. Hajdu’s effort reveals the rich history of the form, as well as possibilities of its future, partly due to its resilience despite the efforts of conservative social engineers.
May 3, 2008 § Leave a Comment
In titling his book “A Short History of the American Stomach,” Frederick Kaufman is certainly cutting to the chase. Though it seems prior to cracking the book open that this will be another in the spate of books and documentaries examining the food we eat and what it means, Kaufman’s goals are more abstract, more psychological. Instead of revealing an ethical or healthy way to eat, Kaufman’s goal is to trace why we eat the way we do and his success at doing so is a wild ride through American absurdity born from one singular trait in the history and present day of our country: repression.
As documented through Kaufman’s work, America is the the ultimate binge and purge society and the whole of the book suggests that anorexia and bulemia are diseases ingrained in the psychology of Americans that only need an appropriate zeitgeist through which to ignite them. With a society birthed of Puritan mores, national days of fasting were common in our country up through the 19th Century, often declared by our presidents as a way of reflection on national issues of the day. Add to this the common medical misconception that all ills — physical or psychological — were centered around your diet and the only way to cure anything from a cough to a coma was to vomit, and you’ve created a dysfunctional relationship with eating that goes across a society.
Kaufman opens the book comparing food shows to pornography and he is right on the mark, going as far as sitting down with a porn filmmaker to dissect the camera techniques. In a binge and purge society, the excess of cooking shows is directly comparable to the idea that something so physical can be experience indirectly, that the visual suggestion can elicit savory excitement within the soul. You can’t eat it, but you sure can watch it.
Such is America’s self-flagellating relationship with sex and food — indeed, pleasure is something we overload on, even as we condemn others doing so. We like to blame the victim of the same temptations any of us have — we aren’t a kind lot. The diseases of being overweight are viewed with the same disdain as sexually transmitted diseases — it’s all their fault. Still, most of us are overweight, few of us have total self-control and the national obsession with dieting is an organized form of psychologically troubling binge and purge that is not only directly from the medicinal scrawls of crazy Puritan Cotton Mather, but a loud mixed message beamed out to every person suffering from an eating disorder in present day society. And it’s no accident that so much of the craziest dietary advice throughout our history have come from people who mix religious thought with food, suggesting that religion should be considered the third sensual pleasure we overload on and abuse.
As American history moves on, so does Kaufman’s sight, taking readers through the early American urge to eat anything that walks and in great abundance — something that culminated in insane, gluttonous meat parade through the streets of New York — through to the American obsession with dieting. His efforts reveal that the same conversations and outrages we have today are ones we’ve been having for a century or two.
Unlike other works that share the same territory, there is little finger pointing in Kaufman’s work, more a commiseration, an understanding. It’s like a clandestine meeting with your siblings where instead of complaining about your lives or your parents, you just look at the way you were raised and they way they were raised and just nod your heads during the analysis — it’s past blame and we’ve moved onto the acceptance and understanding phase of the discussion.