Writing in the Margins

Our new monthly roundup of indie publishing: Junko Mizuno's deranged manga, Disney's war against the underground, Flann O'Brien on life during wartime, lefty theorist Mike Davis' children's book (set in Greenland), and William Upski Wimsatt bombs the 2004 election.

Published February 11, 2004 9:00PM (EST)

If you think noteworthy book releases begin and end with the New York Times' bestseller list, my condolences. Much of what appears on that list is P.R.-engineered phantasm, what William Gibson might have called "a consensual hallucination" had he not used that phrase to describe his invented "cyberspace" in the epoch-making novel "Neuromancer." How the bestseller lists of the New York Times, USA Today and Publishers Weekly are composed is a secretive process, about as complicated -- and crooked -- as the U.S. tax code.

In other words, there is a brave world to explore once you put down that volume by Ann Coulter (or even Al Franken). It's all in the margins, sometimes known as independent publishing, other times known as under-the-radar circulation. And although right and center fields are dominated by the major publishing houses, some of their releases have underperformed compared with their indie counterparts, a few of which are greater in substance, enjoy much longer shelf lives, and are -- every so often -- more lucrative to boot. So throw away your pretensions and burn your bestseller lists. They never did that much for you anyway.

But this is all prologue -- we're here to talk about the unheralded releases of past, present and future, as well as why you should care about any of them.

"Junko Mizuno's Princess Mermaid"
By Junko Mizuno
144 pages
Viz Communications
Order from Powells.com

Junko Mizuno is a feminist conundrum, kind of like the dark arts anti-heroine played by the amazing Brigitte Lin in the blood-soaked Hong Kong film "The Bride With the White Hair." Like Lin's Bride (now you know where Tarantino came up with that whole business in "Kill Bill"), Mizuno's nubile and sometimes nude protagonists, who preen and pulverize with aplomb in her fractured graphic novels, are guilty male pleasures. They're hot, sometimes naked women who kill faster than Russ Meyer's infamous pussycat, Tura Satana. Think the Power Puff Girls with curves and no bras and youre there.

But Mizuno is a female working in the male-dominated world of manga (cartooning) and a Japanese sensation on top of it (you can get a Mizuno screensaver for your phone, for Pete's sake). That twist makes much of which is dominated by sweet-faced cuties that eat their own offspring, or the men they seduce, even more complicated and problematic.

Or, as Eric Nakamura -- publisher of Asian/American pop culture's de facto bible, Giant Robot -- explains in an interview, "Mizuno's style is emerging into the psyches of many designers and American artists spawning copycat T-shirt graphics and club flyers. She rounds up psychedelia, Japanese big-eyed manga and nippled princesses with intensity, and then slam-dunks it into a narrative geared towards 3-year-olds. Her books are for adults and loaded with gummy D-cups that visually rain Japanese muscat soda."

Got that?

Maybe that's another way of saying that readers will need to sift through Mizuno's ambiguous, provocative graphic novels using their own theoretical filters. Sure, men -- and boys -- will gorge themselves on the mermaid hotties populating Mizuno's third revisionist fairy tale, "Princess Mermaid," published last month by North American manga giant Viz Communications. But the women -- and girls -- will most likely enjoy witnessing those same vengeful sea sirens take out their frustration with the human race by destroying every male sailor they come across. Like her previous excursions through popular folklore -- 2003's garish but gleeful "Hansel and Gretel" and 2002's hilarious "Cinderalla" (featuring a hapless prince on I.V. life-support) -- "Princess Mermaid" is a nightmarish narrative that will probably ensnare fans of David Lynch and Camille Paglia alike.

But once again, buyer beware: "My Pretty Pony" this ain't.

"The Pirates and the Mouse: Disney's War Against the Counterculture"
By Bob Levin
270 pages
Fantagraphics Books
Order from Powells.com

Here's a story you can tell your kids -- if you want them to cry all night. In 1963, Dan O'Neill became the youngest syndicated cartoonist in American history, up until his "Odd Bodkins" strip got too comfy with San Francisco's counterculture (evidently there was something strange going on in that town, circa the late '60s!), at which point he was summarily dropped by the stodgy San Francisco Chronicle. Sure, O'Neill was probably sampling the brown acid in the Haight, but what pissed the Chron off more than anything else was the cartoonist's proclamation that Mickey Mouse had to be destroyed. Once and for all.

What happened next is the meat of Bob Levin's rollicking book, and it isn't pretty. O'Neill formed the Air Pirates Funnies with other like-minded animators, and the crew started mercilessly lampooning Disney's moneyed stable from a warehouse owned by Francis Ford Coppola. As you can guess, the always incendiary and sometimes blue satire didn't sit well with the House of Mouse, so their legal department took sure aim between the Air Pirates' eyes. I won't spoil the ending for you -- you've got Google, after all -- but it doesn't matter anyway, because the treat of Levin's book lies in its Merry Pranksterish narration, equal parts smart-ass opinion and conventional reportage.

The whole affair, as Levin recently explained to me, "was a classic '60s struggle. Disney fostered a view derived from an idealized small-town, Midwestern, turn-of-the-century America -- an unquestioning patriotism, a puritanical morality, a celebration of consumption and conformity, an unflagging obedience to father, God and the FBI. The Air Pirates were for sex, drugs, and end-the-fucking-war. It was better than Frazier and Ali."

"The Pirates and the Mouse" is out now from Fantagraphics Books, the finest publishing house for those seriously looking for comic culture and its attendant issues and neuroses. Fantagraphics publishes the work of everyone from the brave "cartoon journalist" Joe Sacco ("Palestine," "Safe Area Goradze") to "Peanuts" creator Charles Schulz (in fact, in a publishing coup, Fantagraphics is reprinting all 50 years' worth of Schulz's "Peanuts" strips). In other words, these guys know what the hell they are doing. So does Levin.

"At War"
By Flann O'Brien
191 pages
Dalkey Archive
Order from Powells.com

Although widely considered, alongside James Joyce and Samuel Beckett, to be one of the greatest Irish writers of the 20th century, Flann O'Brien remains relatively little known. Whether that's because Joyce and Beckett cast such lengthy shadows or because O'Brien wrote under a gripload of pseudonyms -- Count O'Blather, George Knowall, Peter the Painter, Brother Barnabus, John James Doe, Winnie Wedge, An Broc and Myles na gCopaleen -- but never under his real name, Brian O'Nolan, is an intractable argument for Dublin's pubs.

But there is no question that O'Brien, like his compatriots, was possessed of an acerbic wit -- and he wielded it with glee on everyone and everything he could find. His work is wildly varied and recalls the dark self-conscious humor of Thomas Pynchon more than the torrid floridity of Joyce. His classic novel "The Third Policeman" is narrated by a not-so-sharp murderer who spends much of the novel working out the bizarre theories of O'Brien's manufactured philosopher de Selby, who believes, among many other strange things, that the earth is "sausage shaped." Both "The Hard Life" and "The Poor Mouth" are scathing comedies about the abject poverty of Ireland's people and cultural history, and it brought the wrath of the nation down upon him like a tidal wave (poverty doesn't usually play for laughs with the Gaelic nationalist set).

But O'Brien's fearlessness won the audacious author a fair share of proponents, including Joyce, Edna O'Brien, the equally fearless Anthony Burgess (who wrote that "If we don't cherish the work of Flann O'Brien we are stupid fools who don't deserve to have great men") and John Updike. As "City of Quartz" author and MacArthur fellow Mike Davis recently said (to me, last week, when we were having a drink), "Flann is Mad magazine for adults. He's to Joyce as Roberto Arlt, the Argentine author of 'The Mad Toy,' is to Borges: Their anarchist libidos unleashed."

"At War," like "The Best of Myles" and "Further Cuttings From Cruiskeen Lawn" -- all currently available from Illinois State University's indispensable Dalkey Archive Press -- collates O'Brien's column work for the Irish Times written under the pseudonym Myles na gCopaleen. It doesn't sound like much, but editor John Wyse Jackson sifted through 3,000 pieces to craft this concentrated snapshot of life during wartime, and very little is skipped -- O'Brien's thoughts on limiting the use of the shamrock and his daring proposition to move Ireland to a more pleasing climate in the Mediterranean are all included.

"Land of the Lost Mammoths"
By Mike Davis
178 pages
Perceval Press
Order from the publisher

Speaking of Mr. Davis, I have to put in a shameless plug for his first -- but not last -- children's book. For those of you familiar with the sometimes controversial Davis, you'll know that he writes books the way most of us read the DMV manual -- very quickly. But his research is top-notch, his criticisms incisive and uncompromising, and his desire to speak truth to power overwhelming. And unlike the horribly passive syntax found in that last sentence, he's always on point and refreshingly aggressive.

Which is why "Land of the Lost Mammoths" -- recently released from Viggo Mortensen's indie Perceval Press -- is such a curveball. Who would expect a history freak deeply interested in the sociopolitical mechanisms of urbanization to produce a Harry Potter-like tale of three kid scientists nosing through Greenland in search of an ancient undiscovered Viking colony? Davis also contributed (along with Naomi Klein, Joseph Wilson, Mortensen and others) to Perceval's recent all-star vivisection of the corporate payday known as the Iraq War, "Twilight of Empire: Responses to Occupation." But "Land of the Lost Mammoths" is the book garnering the local buzz in Los Angeles. Speaking of the Iraqmire...

"How to Get Stupid White Men Out of Office"
William Upski Wimsatt, editor
160 pages
Soft Skull Press
Order from Powells.com

William Upski Wimsatt's name might not easily roll off the tongue of those who peruse the aforementioned bestseller lists with gusto, but the guy has a résumé longer and stronger than most authors working today. He came up in Chicago as a graffiti artist, before realizing quickly that his community didn't really appreciate the conjunction of those terms. So he published his first broadsheet and distributed it on Chicago public transit, before becoming, at the tender age of 16, a regular columnist for the Source. The National Endowment for the Humanities soon tabbed the burgeoning hip-hop virtuoso as a "younger scholar," the Illinois Arts Council decorated him with an individual artist award, and the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Reader and Utne Reader started hosting his work.

The props soon came rolling in from both sides of the tracks, culminating in mostly unanimous praise for his essential release, "Bomb the Suburbs," a no-holds-barred deconstruction of hip-hop's mass-market deterioration at the hands of pop-cult America's "cash and hos" obsession. While his previous book, "No More Prisons," had carved out a niche for Wimsatt's engaging street reportage, "Bomb the Suburbs" demolished the critical floodgates, as well as the highbrow bias against hip-hop culture -- which, like it or not, has overtaken rock as the youth market's entertainment genre of choice.

Wimsatt's latest missive is a collective effort aimed at galvanizing the continually ignored youth voter market. If the 50,000 first-run printing and 80-city signing tour are a harbinger of things to come, he and his band of new-school multiculturalists might just tip the scales against the Bush administration's reelection bid. "How to Get Stupid White Men Out of Office" offers the strategies of several political artists, organizers and agitators aimed at reclaiming the country's top office, utilizing methods that have already worked to help swing some local elections. There are enlightening success stories in the book that may restore your post-Gore faith in the democratic process, including the tale of Alisha Thomas, a young African-American woman who won a seat in the Gingrich-friendly Georgia state legislature, and a band of South Dakota Native American youths who purportedly swung a U.S. Senate race by barely 500 votes.

Unlike many of the recent books that merely call the Bush administration a bunch of swindling liars -- as if conventional politicians, especially ones whot grifted their way into office, could be anything else -- Wimsatt's book offers tangible solutions for actually doing something about it. Probably because he and his merry band of activists already understand what many of us sometimes forget: The United States is a democracy, and every vote counts if it is cast. Not even Justice Scalia can stop that, especially if you keep that heat lamp squarely in his eyes. So if you're down to amend rather than read about the transgressions of a handful of energy-sector hucksters, then by all means read this book and shoot it off to your friends like a chain letter. You might just swing a national election in the process.

By Scott Thill

Scott Thill is the editor of Morphizm.com. He has written on media, politics and music for Wired, the Huffington Post, LA Weekly and other publications.

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