Review: Hammett by Joe Gores

The novel is about Dashiell Hammett in 1928. At the time, Hammett was living in San Francisco and trying to make his way as a writer. He had quit being a detective and was now trying to write about detectives. The late Joe Gores also worked as a detective and he uses the novel to illuminate Hammett and his work in a way that few have really been able to do. Here we see a man in his thirties, not quite old but old enough to joke about it. Old enough to have a past and be moving away from it. The book also deals with something that Gores, himself a crime writer who worked as a detective, understood, which is that a detective and a writer require very different mindsets. The book also manages to do something that few novels try, and fewer succeed, which is to show Hammett writing and thinking things out as he is reacting to what he's seeing around him. Of course the degree to which this is 100% accurate is another story. I'm willing to bet good money I could read a biography that would take issue with some of Goes' choices, but what makes it so good is the way that he does it and makes it come alive in really interesting ways. Hammett is one of the great writers of the century and this moment in time is vital to so much art and literature that follows. And if Gores never quite manages to craft prose that pops the way that Hammett did, well, who was able to do that?


Articles Published the Week of August 14th

How Neal Adams Changed The Face of Comics - And Why He's Not Done Yet

Some people don't like Neal Adams - which he's fine with. He just keeps doing his thing. The man is 75 and he's not slowing down. But what I've always loved about the man - besides his work, which I loved before I ever met him and got to know him - is his passion and energy. In our conversation, he said "This is the greatest time in the history of art" and he spoke about cosplay about artistic possibilities, about so many things. He loves the state of comics today, he things that things are better than ever, and he loves being a part of it.


Trina Robbins Opens up about Dope and her lost Wonder Woman Tales

It's no secret that I'm a great admirer of Trina Robbins and I've had the chance to talk with her a few times over the years. We spoke recently about her upcoming book Dope, which she originally wrote and drew in the early 1980s, how she adapted her father's short story collection to comics, what Wonder Woman has meant to her, and more.


How Hard Case Will Bring a Seedy Underbelly to Comics

I'm a big fan of Charles Ardai, Christa Faust and Gary Philips. I've read most (maybe all?) of the books each has written over the years and I got to talk with them about the new line of Hard Case Crime Comics.


Nancy Burton: The Comics Journal Interview

Nancy Burton aka Nancy Kalish aka Hurricane Nancy aka Panzika was one of the first women in the underground comics movement of the 1960s and more than that, was one of the first people in New York's underground comics scene. She was drawing comics for The East Village Other starting in 1965. She stopped making art in the early 70s, though she started again a few years ago. I was thrilled that she was willing to talk with me about her work and her life. I think that she's making the best work that she's ever done right now and people should know her and her work.



Review: Delicious by Mark Haskell Smith

There's a certain flavor of crime novel that I like. I know I'm not alone in liking it, but it's one that's funny and a little absurd (or maybe very absurd) but it's never an all out comedy. It can be dark, there are actual stakes and consequences and it's not taking place in a vacuum. Carl Hiaasen is great at these books, Elmore Leonard could do this, and Mark Haskell Smith can do this as well.

The book is set in Hawaii and involves a chef who works for his uncle's catering company. His uncle has a monopoly on the catering business for local film and TV productions. Or he did, until a mobbed-up Las Vegas based company moves in. Now the business is in trouble, and it's happening at a time as our hero's relationship is uneasy and he's debating whether to take a job in New York City.

I don't want to say more than that to be honest because the surprise and the odd twists and turns in the book's plots are part of what makes the book so much fun. This is a story that involves gangsters and hit men and food and union battles and relationships. It can be very dark and also be laugh out loud funny at different points.

And the consequences and the weight of these actions are what makes it funny and what makes it dark. Because these are not cartoons, they're treated as real people dealing with serious issues. The questions of culture and identity that our hero ponder are treated seriously, just as much as the moral decisions everyone faces–and just as seriously as food.

I enjoyed but had mixed feelings about Smith's first novel, Moist. It was amusing but had problems, but with Delicious he made a big leap forward as a writer. The result is, well...delicious.

Articles Published the Week of August 7th

A Conversation with Zack Davisson

Drawn and Quarterly has done all of comics a huge favor by bringing the work of Shigeru Mizuki to English language reader. I spoke with translator and scholar Zack Davisson about the new series of Kitaro that D&Q is publishing starting this year. Davisson spoke about the character, who described as a Japanese Hellboy, and why the character has been huge in Japan for decades.


The Best Mystery Comic You Haven't Read Yet, Last Fair Deal Gone Down

I'm a huge fan of mystery writer Ace Atkins. Right now the man is writing two series, the Quinn Colson novels which are set in Mississippi about an Army Ranger who returns home, and he's continuing the Spenser novels after the death of Robert B. Parker. They're very different books, written in a different style with different characters and settings. And if writing two novels a year wasn't enough, now he's working in comics. With artist Marco Finnegan, Atkins is adapting the Nick Travers stories to comics and the first book is out. I spoke with the two about the project.


Articles Published the Week of July 31st

March Co-writer hopes John Lewis' story instills a sense of power in young readers

One of the great privileges of my life has been to spend some time with Congressman Lewis, and to spend with and get to know Andrew Aydin. Aydin co-wrote March, the third volume of which is out now and it brings this trilogy to a conclusion. We spoke earlier in the summer when he was in Hartford at the Stowe Center, and in so many ways, it was the perfect setting for us to talk.


Leigh Stein: Land of Enchantment

I remember reading an essay of Leigh Stein's a couple years back in Buzzfeed and I liked it just as I liked her novel The Fallback Plan. I spoke with her about her new book, which is just out, Land of Enchantment. The memoir is about her first boyfriend, her first love, and their very complicated relationship, and dealing with the aftermath of his death and trying to understand it. I'm not the biggest memoir fan, but there's so much in this book that moved and we talked at length about the book, about depression, about trying to understand and make sense of our lives, and mourning.


Articles Published the Week of July 24th

The Michael Zulli Interview

Michael Zulli is an amazing artist. I've been astounding by his skill for years in work like Sandman: The Wake, The Last Temptation and other books. I was truly blown away last year when the book The Puma Blues was collected by Dover. This was the first comic that Zulli drew (also the first comic that writer Stephen Murphy wrote) and the two produced an amazing piece of work. It's now collected for the first time with a new coda created for this book. I was blown away by the book, and after years away from comics, was reminded of just how good Zulli is. I was thrilled that I could sit down and talk with him about his work and career.



R.I.P. James Alan McPherson

I never met James Alan McPherson. I read all his books, though.

He was a writer I discovered in my twenties after I graduated from college and adrift, wanting to be a writer, and I stumbled onto his work by accident and made my way through his small but brilliant body of work.

His story collection Hue and Cry and Elbow Room, which are just amazing and deserve more attention. Hopefully in the years to come there will be a collection of those and whatever other stories he's written over the years because it will be an essential book for anyone who loves literature.

There was his memoir Crabcakes and his essay collection A Region Not Home, and it wasn't just that they were brilliant and thoughtful examinations of his own life and his thinking, but in his book of essays he spoke about his own philosophy of life, his philosophical take on the world and how that translated into his fiction.

Coming to his work in the early 21st century I only knew from a historical rear view mirror just what he had really accomplished. McPherson was the first African-American to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

McPherson received the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, a MacArthur Genius Grant (he was in fact in the first class of grant winners along with people like Josef Brodsky, Derek Walcott, Leslie Marmon Silko, Elaine Pagels, Robert Penn Warren), a Guggenheim Fellowship, and a long list of other awards. For many years he's taught at the University of Iowa Writers Workshop.

When I was younger I applied to study at the University of Iowa Writers Workshop, back when I was young and thought that I could be a writer. I knew Iowa because everyone knows that Iowa has the most famous MFA program there is. And I'm not going to lie, the status was a reason to apply, but the real reason I applied was that McPherson and Marilynne Robinson taught there.

It wasn't that I wanted to write like them, but I saw in their work an intelligence, a spirituality, a way of thinking about writing and life which could be meaningful. I wanted that. Of course I never got accepted, never attended graduate school, but I still have those books, and I know that I did learn something from them. I know that this goal to which I have been striving. It's a model I still look towards for guidance, for an example of what's possible in work.

I wonder if he knew what he and his work meant to people.

Rest in peace, sir.


R.I.P. Richard Thompson

Richard Thompson died.

I didn't really know him at all. I interviewed him a couple times, I have been a huge fan of his for years. Until yesterday I would have said that he was one of the greatest living cartoonists. He was an immense talent - a funny writer, a gifted artist, and he had this perspective this strange way of looking at the world which is so relateable, so understandable, and yet is such a strange unique experience that is unlike anything else. Reading Cul de Sac, I am torn between remembering my own childhood and this sense that I am experiencing in the strip something that has never existed before but which I can understand.

When Thompson retired years ago, so many of us felt it was unfair. The truth is that Cul de Sac should have been a huge success, published in papers across the country and around the world. Thompson should have been a household name. If there was justice, Cul de Sac would have been around for decades, and people would speak of the strip the way that many of us have talked about Peanuts and Calvin and Hobbes. It was that genius. It deserves to be mentioned in the company of those strips.

Richard Thompson was a funny man, a brilliant artist, and a really nice, kind person. The world is a little poorer without him.

I spoke with Thompson twice over the years, in 2011:

And in 2014:

Neither are the best interviews I ever did. I wish I could have spent more time with him. Rest in peace.


Articles Published the Week of July 17th

You Are On Display: An Interview with Morgan Parker
I spoke with the poet (and editor and teacher) Morgan Parker recently for The Paris Review about her work. She had a great poem in the last issue of the Paris Review magazine and we spoke about that poem, her work, her love of crafting lengthy and colorful titles, her next book, and other topics. She's an immense talent and I was thrilled to chat with her.


Caring for the Underdog: An interview with Jerome Charyn

Jerome Charyn has had a pretty amazing career as a writer.I don't have the time to even list all the books he's written, but he's an immensely gifted man who has crafted historical fiction and contemporary stories, crime fiction, nonfiction, graphic novels, short stories, novels. Dover is currently publishing his graphic novels in beautiful new editions and his most recent book is A Loaded Gun: Emily Dickinson for the 21st Century, which is a nonfiction looking at the great American poet, and how his perspective on Dickinson has changed in the decade since his novel The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson.


Bryan Lee O'Malley: Snotgirl

Bryan Lee O'Malley will always be the man behind Scott Pilgrim for some people but besides working on a new graphic novel trilogy, he's also writing a new ongoing series from Image Comics. Snotgirl is about a fashion blogger and internet star with really bad allergies who decides that she wants to change her life. We spoke about writing for another artist, ongoing projects and more.


Gina Wynbrandt Requests Someone Please Have Sex with Me?

I was really blown away by Gina Wynbrandt's debut collection of comics, which was recently published by 2d Cloud. It's funny and profane and weird in all the best ways. Wynbrandt is funny, smart, a good cartoonist and she is going to have an amazing career. I was thrilled to talk with her at the beginning of it.



Audio Review: The Memory Palace

Nate DiMeo's podcast The Memory Palace is just flat out brilliant.


It's a history podcast, though that doesn't really get at why it's so good. Let's be honest just saying suggests something dry. That's how we were taught history in school after all, and you can hear this dull, bored tone of a teacher repeating names and dates. That's not the history that interests DiMeo, though.

Episode 91, Natural Habitat, is about Ruth Harkness, who traveled to China and brought a panda to the United States in 1936. The basic outline of Harkness' life is pretty awe-inspiring. Also the episode does what Dimeo does so well which is to bring us these historical figures who are in so many ways larger than life, and yet also portray them as these very human and understandable people. Harkness did things that most of us can't even imagine doing and then she kept doing it, going off on one expedition after another. She wasn't born into high society or wealth.

That sense of adventure is what drove her, but DiMeo also makes clear that Harkness kept going on one expedition after another to get that spark that she found on her first trip.

Harkness may be largely forgotten today, but that idea - Natural Habitat, is the title of the episode - lets DiMeo bring it back around to this idea that live pandas captured the nation and forced zoos to rethink what they did and how they did it. No longer were taxidermied animals enough, they needed real animals to capture people's imagination. And that required a habitat. It required a place where they could live, where the could be themselves. That was a very, very long process that is obviously still going. But this idea, that in that first expedition, Harkness discovered herself, and spent the rest of her life trying to recapture that feeling, that place, and ever since we saw a panda, ever since we saw animals in the flesh, we had to find a way to allow them to be themselves, the way that it manages to be both thoughtful and in the context of Harkness' relatively short life, heartbreaking, is what DiMeo does so well.

There's that oft-quoted line about how great men are rarely good men. DiMeo's great skill is that he wants us to see the people behind events like this. It would be very easy to make Harkness' story into a grand adventure tale - and it is - but DiMeo wants more. He wants us to feel for her, he wants to break our hearts at her loss, he wants us to feel something when she dies.

This isn't what he always does. Sometimes as in episode 92 about Cleveland, he wants to use what we know about the city - the Cuyahoga river caught on fire - and take a deeper dive into why that happened and what it meant and how it is that this became something Cleveland is known for - when after all, lots of rivers caught on fire back in the days before the Clean Water Act.

Many people might also know episode 73, which has been one of the highlights of the program - "Notes on an Imagined Plaque to be Added to the Statue of General Nathan Bedford Forrest, Upon Hearing that the Memphis City Council has Voted to Move it and the Exhumed Remains of General Forrest and his Wife Mary Ann Montgomery Forrest, from their Current Location in a Park Downtown, to the Nearby Elmwood Cemetery" - which as is obvious form the title is both about history and about how we choose to remember historical events.

Of course that is his point. When we talk about history, when we remember it, study it, write about it, we involved in it. This is a personal thing. To act as though it's abstract and meaningless is to miss the point. "The past is never dead. It's not even past," as William Faulkner put it. DiMeo I think would agree wholeheartedly.

If this weren't enough, DiMeo is a MetLiveArts Artist in Residence  at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and he's making work for and about the museum. And if you haven't been, it is an amusing museum with a lot of possibilities and a lot of stories about and around the work on display. I can't wait to hear more of what he has in store for us.


As a warning for those who are about to dive into the show for the first time, each episode has a title, but there's not much in the way of a description of what you're about to hear. Go with it. The point isn't really to learn about a certain topic. The purpose is to experience it. You'll be surprised. Just go with it. It's like life, that way.


The Star Trek Fan Film Guidelines

I know that a lot of people are angry about the guidelines. Hell, angry is possibly the biggest understatement that I've made on this blog. Now I don't have a dog in this fight so to speak. I don't write fan fiction or make fan films, though I have seen some. But I just remember reading the guidelines and it seemed obvious what they were doing. Paramount/CBS is making it clear what a fan film can be and it  has to be completely different from what they do.

They want a wall (god in this election season I feel horrible using that metaphor) between their Star Trek projects and fan projects with no overlap.

Now anytime that copyright or rights or credit gets discussed online someone chimes in and says, copyright shouldn't exist! I'm not going to get into that. I think corporations have extended copyright and that's absurd but that's not what we're discussing. The point is though that they're saying, do what you want, but it can't be mistaken for what we do on any level.

Now there are two reasons for this. One is simply that a couple people behind Axanar forced their hand as has been discussed elsewhere. Once lawsuits get involved, well, hammers are going fall somewhere somehow.

But the truth is that years ago (hell, not even that long ago) technology was such that a fan project was obvious. There was no way in the 1970's that a fan film would be anything close to what we saw on screen. Today, though, you can create something of broadcast level quality using tools you bought at a big box store

Of course it's still possible to make different things. Go make your 29 minute fan episode of Star Trek. (and as a writer, believe me, shorter is better 99% of the time) Go perform it in the park as a theater show. Go write up a story and post it online. But the rule has always been, you can't make money off it.

The people behind Axanar forced Paramount's hand on this. They wanted to make a film and make money and this is where they got in trouble. This is why most of the people who worked on the project including Christian Gossett and others have said that they were lied to, and have distanced themselves from the project.

Ultimately the thing about fan fiction is: you can not make money off it.

Hell, you can change the names and a few details and publish it as an original work. You can make a parody and publish it and make money. But you cannot write fan fiction of copyrighted material and make money.

Look at 50 Shades of Gray which was Twilight fan fiction where the author changed names and some details. It's huge. That is what's possible.

So either work with these guidelines or make your own thing.

Either watch them or don't.

Maybe this is a sign of how far removed I am from the fan fiction community or maybe it's just a sign of how much of a curmudgeon I am, but I don't get why people are so up at arms over it.


R.I.P. Carolyn See

The writer Carolyn See has died.


I didn't think that such a death would hit me hard. I'm not a huge fan of See's work, I never knew her, though I did meet her once. I think that one reason is because it feels like the passing of an era.

If there a California school of fiction that has emerged in recent decades, See would epitomize it. Along with people like TC Boyle, Aimee Bender, Steve Erickson, and so many others have written work that could be described in some ways as magical realist, but they're doing different things with it than what Marquez and Borges were doing. It has a certain multicultural flavor, as one would expect from a place that is so shaped by a confluence of cultures, there is often a self consciously intellectual and literary aspect to it.There are a number of books that inspired this, but there are so many people producing work in this vein now that it feel like a school of its own.

See lived in California for much of her life and more than just living there she wrote about and was interested in the place and the culture. She worked to encourage people in Los Angeles and deflated obnoxious East coast types who didn't think LA had a culture.

I was living in California when See's last novel There Will Never Be Another You was released and I got a crash course in who she was and what she meant. Having moved to LA I didn't appreciate her initially but it was through reading that book and her earlier novel Golden Days that I came to regard her with awe. She was able to write domestic, interior stories that also opened up onto global events and larger ideas. They were about things. They were able to bridge decades and changing times, they were fantastic and wild and yet about the present.

Quite frankly in some ways she was one of those writers I had been searching for my entire life. That was what I felt upon reading her. Work that seemed to take place, 20 minutes into the future.

Perhaps one reason that her death has hit me is that it's not simply the death of a writer and critic, but it feels like the end of an era. See was born in Pasadena in 1934, and I've seen the photos, but I can barely conceive of what the region must have looked like then. She went onto get a PhD, she married and got divorced. She taught. She was a book critic - back in the days when newspapers had book critics and paid for such work. She watched Los Angeles change, bridging the prewar era to the postwar boom, the sixties which quickly morphed into the Manson-caused fear, the eighties and the recession following the end of the cold war that collapsed the aerospace industry.

See saw this and she managed to turn it into some amazing work. She seemed to be able to craft in her fiction an understanding of the ways the world had changed, the ways society had changed. Most importantly, I felt that she was pointing towards a way to live and work as a writer.

It's so easy to be overwhelmed by what's going on in the world, but See in her fiction managed to write about topical issues, write about characters who were dealing with these issues, who were at the mercy of these larger forces. I felt as though she was showing a way for writers to function, to carve out a private room of our own where we could work, while at the same time paying attention, to see closely, to write about it with the same nuance and consideration that we give to people and their interactions.

There may have been an autobiographical origin of this. See has written about how when she was a child her father left her mother in August 1945, and she has always linked the bombing of Hiroshima with that personal betrayal, that human bombing. Regardless of where this perspective originated, See had a unique voice and wrote some great work. Even sadder than her death is the fact that we have no more Carolyn See books to look forward to.

Rest in peace.

If you've never read Carolyn See:
  • Her novels. Start with either Golden Days or There Will Never Be Another You.
  • Her memoir, Dreaming, is a great piece of work.
  • Her book, Making a Literary Life: Advice for Writers and Other Dreamers.