Saturday, April 10, 2004
Road trip near Chernobyl. Go slow. Lots to see here.
Robert Adams, Colorado series and some others
"Boy, what a great job," says an unthinking bookstore visitor almost daily. "You must have lots of time to read!" Well, not really, as this all-too-brief list of recently completed titles should show:

Peter Rabe, Kill The Boss Goodbye. The German psychologist-cum-noir-novelist's best known book, originally issued by Gold Medal in 1956 and reprinted by Black Lizard. Gang boss Fell is sprung from the private hospital where he's been recovering from a psychotic breakdown, only to find himself falling apart all over again as he tries to piece his empire back together. . . .

Rabe's my favorite non-canonical noir writer; his stories are distinguished by their constantly shifting points of view; spare syntax; and dry, coal-black humor. Much admired by major crime novelists like Donald Westlake and John D. MacDonald, Rabe is almost unknown today, a situation I hope to fix by compiling a critical bibliography of Rabe's twenty-plus novels, to be posted on the store's website sometime soon. . . .

Georges Perec, "The Winter Journey." Borges? He loved him madly.

Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind, The Smartest Guys in the Room: The Amazing Rise and Scandalous Fall of Enron. Recommended by Warren Buffett in Berkshire Hathaway's 2003 annual report and, sure enough, a thoroughly detailed and entertaining account of American capitalism run totally amok. Very much in the spirit of a late Shakespearian history play set in 20th century Houston. An entire chapter is devoted to a play-by-play reconstruction of Enron's power traders busily scamming the state of California. Highlights here soon!

Friday, April 09, 2004
Just published a slightly revised version of this short piece on Patrick McDonnell's comic strip Mutts in the pages of the new Vancouver Review:

Christopher Brayshaw looks at the best comic strip since Peanuts

Every morning, when I open The Vancouver Sun to the comics page, I read the same two strips. The first is Lynn Johnson’s For Better or For Worse, which I've been following since elementary school. Part of checking in with the Patterson family is simple nostalgia; I'm just plain curious to know how the fictitious characters I’ve grown up with have changed along with me.

Patrick McDonnell’s Mutts is the second, and my motivation for reading it is something else entirely. If you don’t already know, the strip is about a little spotted dog, Earl; his friend and next-door neighbour, the little black cat Mooch; Earl’s owner, Ozzie; Mooch’s owners, the retired couple Frank and Millie; their pet goldfish, Sid; the watchdog chained in the backyard a few houses down; the stout man behind the counter at the Fatty Snax deli; and the neighborhood tomcat.

But Mutts is also about the caged strays on death row at the local animal shelter, just waiting to be gassed; the penned-up chimps at the medical research lab; the crated pigs at the fattening facility where the lights are always on; the circus elephant chained outside the tents on the edge of town, dreaming of Africa; and finally, the African animals that once visited Mooch and Earl in their dreams to report, “We’re scared.”

Mutts is impossibly large. Its subject is the world, all living beings in it, and their relationships with each other. Yet the strip never reads like a PETA or Earth First! tract. Its touch is incredibly light and gentle, which explains how it alights in your mind and rests there. Most of the strips found on today’s daily comic pages are founded on an unwritten pact between cartoonist, syndicate, and creator. Syndicates hire cartoonists to target to specific demographic niches: the young single women who read Cathy, say, or the latte-sipping intellectuals who head straight to Bizarro. We know, instinctively, that none of Cathy’s friends will ever have an abortion or contract herpes from a one-night stand; the strip’s simple focus on relationship- and work-based comedy precludes such “reality” from intruding. Mutts, like all truly great comic strips, makes no such promises, and the way that McDonnell’s stories oscillate between gentle comedy and understated pathos is the strip’s greatest strength.

When I first read Mutts, I thought it was a second-rate strip: gorgeously drawn but kind of aimless. McDonnell’s jokes never really cohered, and his characters spent most of their time wandering around in a wide-eyed fog, gazing out at the world. Then, sometime in the strip’s second year, everything locked into place. McDonnell’s deliberate, almost meditative pace, I realized, allowed him to notice things that other cartoonists, in their haste to be funny or “relevant,” miss. I finally understood that McDonnell was refusing to accept the customary contract between creator and reader. He was refusing to perform, to debase his characters in order to come up with zingy or poignant punch lines day in, day out, 364 days a year. He let Mooch and Earl and the rest evolve at their own pace--incrementally, like the seasons.

Mutts is an anomaly among the current funny pages, which are by and large a wasteland of stilted, inexpressive drawing and sitcom-style dialogue. Fat, lazy cats and neurotic young professionals may shift a lot of greeting cards, coffee mugs, and black-and-white reprint collections. But they look awfully thin and unappealing compared to the great newspaper strips of the past: Frank King’s Gasoline Alley, George Herriman’s Krazy Kat, and E.C. Segar’s Thimble Theatre. These strips are still loved and studied today, and have inspired contemporary cartoonists as otherwise diverse as Chris Ware, Sherry Flenniken, Joe Matt, Kaz, and Gary Panter.

Yet purists who advocate a return to the lush production standards of classic newspaper strips like Gasoline Alley and Little Nemo In Slumberland are living in dreamlands of their own. The rich colors and gorgeous linework of a Lionel Feininger or Windsor McCay strip are impossible to reproduce today, given economic realities like shrinking newspaper comics sections and relatively impoverished printing and colouring technologies. Those who knock Scott Adams’ Dilbert for the jaw-dropping crudity of its linework fail to recognize that his supposedly poor drawing skills are perfectly suited to the high-tech yet raw mechanical systems that enable the strip’s reproduction and dissemination.

McDonnell’s artwork is, in its own way, as “spare” as Scott Adams’s. His lines is busy, quick, abbreviated; they lift and flick and dart. Earl’s wagging tail is a flurry of strokes, the visual equivalent of a fencer’s assault. Mooch’s fur is all fat black brushstrokes; the little cat looks like he only takes four or five strokes. But, as Charles Schultz proved years ago with Peanuts, in modern comics, visual economy is often more. Charlie Brown looks awfully easy to draw until you actually try to duplicate that staggeringly simple bald head. The same is true of Mooch, Earl, Sourpuss, Jules, or any of the other Mutts regulars. Behind their apparent visual simplicity lies McDonnell’s imagination, which draws upon great comic art of the past not merely to reproduce it, but to reinterpret it.

The stylistic homages that lead off each Sunday strip (to Mondrian; to Charles Schultz; to Dalí; to the anonymous designer of a 1930s biscuit tin) are a case in point, evidence of McDonnell’s vast, democratic interest in every kind of art. Other strips--including one in which a wild deer crops grass in front of a vast, snowy expanse of suburban tract houses, or the ones that feature Mooch and Earl talking to squirrels, birds, and Africa’s most endangered creatures--are evidence of an equally deep interest in the natural world and all living creatures. At the midpoint of these abiding interests, McDonnell creates his moving, authentic art.

The Secret 3 show was good but short, a single slot on what looked to be a six band lineup.

I've had the site's other live track, Brokaw, on any number of compilation discs, so often, in fact, that hearing it now brings several different places to mind. Skirting the edge of Nevada's Walker Lake at dusk, for example, the big rigs rolling south past my rented Echo with their lights on.
Thursday, April 08, 2004
My painter neighbor upstairs, Kevin House, dropped a copy of his new CD by. Kevin's self-described "sideshow banner art" doesn't do that much for me, so I was a little unsure of what the CD would sound like. Having had it on all day now, I think it's terrific, full of tasty, Nick Drake-ish acoustic guitar and warm, understated vocals. John & Chris also like it, probably the first time in the store's history that the three principals all agree on the same CD.

CD release party: Friday 15th April, @ the Anza, 8th and Ontario

Off to the Anza right now, to catch Brady Cranfield and his friends in The Secret 3, the only local band I've seen live more than once this decade. That's me lurking somewhere in the background of their amazing cover of Cortez the Killer at the Patricia Hotel, drinking Kilkenney, smiling, and nodding along.
Retrospective -- photographs by my friend Evan Lee, including some new ones
Tuesday, April 06, 2004
A free afternoon. Can't think of anything better than soaking up Vitamin D in the warm spring sun. Off to my favorite park bench in New Westminster, a quiet place overlooking the Fraser River and a few bridges, with my backpack, the New York Times, and Maggie Mahar's Bull! : A History of the Boom, 1982-1999: What drove the Breakneck Market--and What Every Investor Needs to Know About Financial Cycles.

Driving to Squamish tomorrow, for the year's first conditioning hike and some summit bouldering. Back Thursday!

Monday, April 05, 2004
Steely Dan Live At Roseland '95 fills the office speakers:

Bad Sneakers

Five names that I can hardly
Stand to hear
Including yours and mine
And one more chimp who isn't here
I can see the ladies talking
How the times are getting hard
And that fearsome excavation
On Magnolia Boulevard
And I'm going insane
And I'm laughing at the frozen rain
And I'm so alone
Honey when they gonna send me home
Bad sneakers and a Piña Colada
My friend
Stompin' on the avenue
By Radio City with a
Transistor and a large
Sum of money to spend

You fellah, you tearin' up the street
You wear that white tuxedo
How you gonna beat the heat
Do you take me for a fool
Do you think that I don't see
That ditch out in the valley
That they're digging just for me

Steve Coll's Ghost Wars, the best non-specialist account of pre-911 Afghanistan I know
Can the Market Add and Subtract? -- persuasive evidence that tech investors can't
Trapped in a plastic display bubble at Kingsgate Mall -- Hamtaro finger puppets
A young guy arrived in front of the store with a placard. I wandered outside with memories of the Joe's Cafe boycott fresh in my mind, wondering what I'd done to attract my very own protester. False alarm -- just local indie rap artist Wojack plugging his website and new CD to passers-by.
Sunday, April 04, 2004 -- the graveyard of American capitalism. No Dismal Swamp Co. certificates in evidence, but lots of defunct industrial giants and flighty .coms.

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