Writing in the Margins

Our monthly roundup of indie publishing: DC Comics terrifies with Lovecraft; Lethem and Denis Johnson do avant-cabaret; a harrowing tale of the 1997 Red River flood.

By Scott Thill

Published May 13, 2004 7:11PM (EDT)

Man alive! I did not predict nor was I equipped to deal with the e-mail inundation my last column generated. But that is not to say that I am asking all of you crafty readers out there to cease and desist; on the contrary, to quote President Bush -- or John Kerry, you decide -- "Bring it on!" By all means, keep sending me your releases, kits and solicitations and I promise to try to sift through it all before turning in to watch "Cowboy Bebop." I'm interested in almost anything not involving Martha Stewart.

And another quick note before we get this bookworm party started. While this column is oriented toward the latest in indie publishing, my personal definition of what exactly that encompasses is probably a bit broader than the one offered by the excellent Punk Planet. For me, "indie" sometimes connotes a particular state of mind, usually one involving bizarre experiments and risky brilliance; sometimes I can find that confluence in a major release (Jonathan Lethem's latest comes immediately to mind, and not just because he's the finest writer working today). But the majority of the time that will simply not be the case.

Plus, today's optimistic terminology quickly becomes tomorrow's buzz-soaked ad copy. To wit, there is already a self-proclaimed "indie" radio station owned by Entravision Communications -- Indie 103.1 in Los Angeles -- that broadcasts deep cuts rarely heard on radio stations unaffiliated with universities or colleges.

All of this is another way of saying that I just want to bring you the goods, no matter who publishes it. I'll try to stick mostly to the hardscrabble outfits publishing shot-in-the-dark screeds from basements in Omaha, Neb., or Santa Monica, Calif., but just not all of the time. Let's start with an example.

By Hans Rodionoff, Enrique Breccia and Keith Giffen
144 pages
DC Comics
Order from Powells.com

"It's a Bird"
By Steven T. Seagle and Teddy Kristiansen
128 pages
DC Comics
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"Y: The Last Man"
By Brian K. Vaughan, Pia Guerra and José Marzán Jr.
DC Comics
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DC is one of the oldest and finest publishing houses in the world; it almost single-handedly revolutionized comics for the 21st century in 1986, the year that both Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' "Watchmen" and Frank Miller, Lynne Varley and Klaus Janson's "Batman: The Dark Knight Returns" wrecked the comic book shop for good. Before those graphic novels hit the streets, the superhero narrative was mostly a cliché-ridden genre out of touch with a society well past its simplistic worldview. In one fell swoop, Batman went from being a heart-of-gold crime-fighter to a self-absorbed psychopath with a messiah complex, and that dark and dangerous metamorphosis was all the world needed to explode comic books even further into the stratosphere. (Tim Burton's "Batman" came out a scant three years later, and Hollywood hasn't looked back since.)

But if you still believe at this late date that comics are strictly for kids, take a look at DC's adult readers' line, Vertigo. Hitchcock would be proud of that title, as the protagonists of Vertigo's newly released or upcoming "Lovecraft," "Y: The Last Man" and "It's a Bird" are harried males at the mercy of oppressive -- sometimes feminizing -- forces arrayed against them. While "The Last Man" series is a bit more traditional in its fantastic plot -- a heroic male magician named Yorick finds himself alone in a post-apocalyptic world full of women, a comic nerd scenario if there ever was one -- the other two derail the superhero narrative in favor of a metafictional horror; that is, they are both books about the metaphysical struggle to, well, write books.

Steven Seagle and Teddy Kristiansen's "It's a Bird" seizes upon the Superman mythos as its point of departure, but it is actually about Seagle's struggle to write a Superman comic as his family succumbs to Huntington's disease. "The two subjects collided in a unique amalgam of family history and Superman deconstruction," Seagle explained to me in an interview. "I realized I could tell one story using the other as an emotional punching bag, and that seemed like something I had never seen done before."

"There have been other metafictional moments in comics -- Grant Morrison's appearance as himself in his own superhero comic 'Animal Man' comes to mind -- but 'It's a Bird' is a bigger departure for comics than just metafiction," he added. "This is a book about the real-world Superman, the one who exists only as a comic book character. It's about the absurdity of trying to chronicle a man of infinite powers while living in a world populated with people whose 'powers' -- to speak, to walk, to feel -- are waning."

Meanwhile, "Lovecraft" is an imagined biography of H.P. Lovecraft that literalizes the horror master's legendary creations like Cthulhu and Arkham (after which Frank Miller named the asylum where Batman banishes the Joker and Two-Face in "The Dark Knight Returns") as real places and beasts that terrorize his every step. Using the bizarre intricacies of Lovecraft's real life -- his philanderer father contracted syphilis and eventually died in an insane asylum; his mother dressed young Howard up in girls' clothing and met her own demise in an asylum -- and turning them into actual events that lead him to a lonely doom, "Lovecraft" blurs the line between fantasy and reality to the point that separation is simply no longer possible.

"At a time when most horror fiction was about creatures from the deep or invaders from Mars, Lovecraft chose to explore a hidden world that existed just outside human perception," Rodionoff told me recently. "He essentially built the foundation for modern horror, and I wanted to write something that would inspire readers who weren't familiar with his work to discover Lovecraft for themselves. The story of the man is just as bizarre and ultimately tragic as many of the myths he created."

Rodionoff is no stranger to horror, having penned screenplays for more than a few Clive Barker-ish gore films (including three in 2004 alone), and Giffen's distillation of his twisted narrative, as well as Breccia's harrowing artwork, makes this a read worthy of the "Dawn of the Dead" and "28 Days Later" faithful who are currently flooding the theaters and rental shops around the country. Horror is massive right now, which means there's no time like the present to rediscover the tortured Lovecraft while you can. More important, it's long past time to stop looking down on comics as some form of lowbrow entertainment.

"Things like 'Maus' and Neil Gaiman's 'Sandman' have elevated graphic novels to a legitimate form of literature," Rodionoff added. "Comics are no longer limited to being housed in plastic bags and stored away in the attic; they can now be put on the shelf with the other books."

"As Smart As We Are"
By One Ring Zero and various authors
Soft Skull Press
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Speaking of Gaiman and Lethem, both have lately taken a detour into songwriting -- as have other authors like Dave Eggers, Paul Auster, Margaret Atwood and more -- on this strange two-headed hydra from Soft Skull. A CD/book featuring lyrics from the aforementioned stalwarts put to the bizarro neo-cabaret sounds of Brooklyn's own One Ring Zero, "As Smart As We Are" is a compelling yet hilarious listen that recalls Eggers' clever work with They Might Be Giants. Which is no accident -- this collaboration landed its sea legs after One Ring's Michael Hearst tracked Eggers down shortly after moving to Manhattan in 2001. The rest, as they say, is history.

One Ring Zero are well-suited for a project like this, because they're not afraid to travel beyond the usual guitar-bass-drums territory into more abstract, alien lands where accordions, toy pianos, theremins and other strange instruments rule the roost. Plus, their musicianship is wide-ranging enough to encompass the varied structures and styles -- everything from blues and high lonesome to torch songs and ballads -- that the authors throw at them. There are numerous standout tracks, but high honors go to Paul Auster, whose tongue-in-cheek "Natty Man Blues" boasts some stellar twists of phrase ("There ain't no sin in Cincinnati/ since I been in Cincinnati/ I gotta get out of Cincinnati/ or else I'll go plum dumb and batty/ since I mean to sin wherever I am") and Calexico-like desert country. Denis Johnson's "Blessing" is also a western hoot, blending noodling guitars, mandolin, theremin and a rumbling bass with strange lyrics about Mel Gibson's favorite cinematic subject: "Christ by the dumpster/ Peeling and tossing your lottery tickets/ O Nazarene, drinking dust/ Christ rising and a-falling/ Jesus Christ giving us the finger." Fans of They Might Be Giants, Black Heart Procession and Tom Waits' diagonal songcraft will be crying in their whiskey after this CD winds down on Lethem's fractured "Water."

Now I know that Soft Skull Press nabbed a mention in the last column, but have you taken a look at its catalog? It's a blast. Plus, the press has been taking a beating, even in these hallowed pages, for picking up the late J.H. Hatfield's controversial screed on George W., "Fortunate Son," as if they should have just passed on it. A book exposing the grifting ways of the Bush clan written by a guy who stored a corpse in his trunk? How can you resist that? It's freakin' gold!

"De-loused at the Comatorium"
By Cedric Bixler and Jeremy Ward
24 pages
Gold Standard Labs

While we're on the subject of music, you would have been hard-pressed to find the ambitious prog-punk epic "De-loused at the Comatorium" on critics' Top Ten of 2003 lists, but that's probably because they preferred the amateurism of Dizzee Rascal or the color-coded cuteness of the White Stripes to Mars Volta's vertigo-inducing swirl of high-impact poetry, muscular guitars and 10-minute jam sessions. In a perfect world, those critics would have their passes revoked: Mars Volta, more than any band in recent memory, has convincingly fused Led Zeppelin's riff library, Pink Floyd's conceptual strivings and Fugazi's sheer fury into one cathartic lump.

One of the reasons Mars Volta's release is so jarring is its pained, psychological exploration of addiction and doom. "Comatorium's" lyrics -- now expanded at length into book form and available only from the independent Gold Standard Labs label or, if you're lucky, your local indie music store -- recall William Burroughs' disturbing "Naked Lunch" or Dalton Trumbo's "Johnny Got His Gun" in their imaginative extrapolations and uncompromising portrayal of the solitary mind in a state of irrevocable deterioration. Based on the true story of Julio Venegas, a doomed childhood friend of Volta vocalist Cedric Bixler and guitarist Omar Rodriguez-Lopez (who also moonlights as one of Gold Standard Labs' head honchos), "De-loused" tells the story of Cerpin Taxt, who after trying to commit suicide by taking morphine ends up in both a coma and a spiritual battle for his own condemned soul.

Like Burroughs and especially Beckett, Bixler unleashes his language in psycho-scatalogical torrents, fusing poetry's high-impact wordcraft with conventional narrative's more accessible structure. Unlike the CD, the book, in a dense and deceptive 24 pages, offers up much more information about the various angels and demons Taxt encounters on his way to salvation, all the while engaging some audacious poetic exercises; picture Dante's "Inferno" with Robert Plant in the lead role and you're partially there. Separated from its sonic counterparts and stretched in format, Bixler's poetry sticks in your throat the way Chester Himes' "If He Hollers Let Him Go" does.

And, unlike "Naked Lunch," you can actually read the thing in one day without reaching for the methadone.

"Red River Rising: The Anatomy of a Flood and the Survival of an American City"
By Ashley Shelby
266 pages
Borealis Books
Order from Powells.com

"We were otherwise silent, watching houses slide into the ocean, whole villages crackle and ignite in the mass of advancing lava. Every disaster made us wish for more, for something bigger, grander, more sweeping." -- Don DeLillo, "White Noise"

While "De-loused at the Comatorium" charts the spiritual catastrophe of one fictional character based on a real-life individual, Ashley Shelby's harrowing tale chronicles the collective ruination wrought by the 1997 Red River flood that displaced more than 50,000 North Dakota residents and cost billions in disaster relief. While the story merited a healthy amount of national coverage at the time, it has dropped out of the national consciousness -- that is, if you don't happen to live in or around any of the towns it devastated. If you lived in Grand Forks on or after the Red River broke through its dikes and submerged the town, you're probably still looking for some well-earned closure.

That may be, as Shelby explained to me recently, because after the initial solidarity and media coverage wear off, the aftermaths of catastrophes like the Red River flood usually deteriorate into bitter chaos. "It's difficult to streamline aftermaths and recoveries," Shelby said, "because each community is unique. And a flood is a very different kind of disaster from a tornado; a flood tends to steal from its victims for a much longer period of time."

The aftermath, she continued, "contains an initial solidarity, in which the community unites against the disaster. Then, as federal agencies trickle in, the community closes in upon itself, suspicious of outsiders. As time passes, though, and the federal government begins doling out money and aid, the community begins to fragment into individual islands of pain and resentment, because suddenly there are gradations of loss. As we've seen in the last few years, there is hardly anything more politicized and highly charged than victimhood."

Shelby's strength lies in charting the uncomfortable collisions between a disturbing natural reality and an unsettling bureaucratic fantasy, a domain populated by well-meaning but harried scientists, apathetic government agencies, calculating insurance companies, under-the-gun local politicians and residents who suddenly find themselves at the mercy of Mother Nature. More often than not, Americans feel they're in control of the natural world and take their planet for granted, but history is littered with the casualties of that wrongheaded philosophy. Shelby's book forces us to look into the mirror and come to terms with our pride and our ignorance, our faith and our policies.

"Whether it's a tornado, a flood, or even an act of terrorism, people are emotionally injured and yet are asked, immediately, to find closure and rebuild," says Shelby. "The stages of personal grief apply to the grief suffered by victims of all disasters -- and like someone grieving for the loss of a loved one, you can't force people to get over it sooner than they are able, especially when they cling to beliefs that are informed by faulty information. Survival isn't something that occurs overnight -- it takes years. But the media leave disasters as soon as the opportunities for dramatic pictures disappear. The bulk of the surviving takes place after the water recedes, and I think the story of how Grand Forks survived its disaster can be illuminating for any community that suffers a catastrophic event."

This story has been corrected since it was first published.

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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