Now that we have a street date for the seventh and final Harry Potter novel, I’ve decided to reread the previous six. I’ve only read each of them once, as they appeared, so I’ve forgotten loads of minor characters, little details, Rowling’s sly winks of cleverness, cool inventions, and her gift for comedy. Alas, I’d also forgotten her occasional lapses into tired cliché, sometimes numbing use of expository dialogue, and her tendency to summarize the previous books in each new book of the series.
Still, it’s loads of fun. Reading the books in quick succession, spread out over a few weeks instead of over a near-decade, is fascinating. (It’s hard to believe Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone in 1999, or that there’s a generation of kids that’s basically grown up with the Harry Potter books.) In the back of my head, I’ve always thought of each book as a very long chapter in what would wind up as an epic children’s tale, rather than as discrete entities, and that the series should be read critically as such. To read them again is to be reminded of how sharp a plotter Rowling is. She plants ideas that sometimes don’t get resolved until three books later, but the structure’s so sound that the clues are all there.
Anyway, the light volume in this edition of Quick Hits is not because I’ve not been consuming much culture, but because I don’t want this to become a Potter fest. Now, that may come in July or August, once I’m wrapped my head around the completed series. Here we go…
The Little Man: Short Strips, 1980-1995 by Chester Brown (1980-1995, 2006): I’ve tried to like Chester Brown. I’ve muddled through his surreal, semi-improvised Ed the Happy Clown, his bizarrely told but curiously deadpan biography of a Canadian-Indian revolutionary (Louis Riel), and the eleven issues of Underwater, which even he couldn’t adequately describe—and which I like best of all his work. I acknowledge his influence on the alternative comics scene, and even understand the admiration cartoonists have for Brown’s brave experiments and adamant refusal to neuter his vision, whatever the hell it is. But I confess: his scatological art seems too calculated by half; his thin, brittle lines lack solidity; his here-goes-nothing layouts irritate me; his writing and narrative pacing is slack; and, even when he uses close-ups or shows himself eating his own snot or peeing in the toilet, his art as a whole feels distant. The Little Man reprints all of his shorter “narratives,” with Brown’s customarily expansive and revealing notes—easily the best part of the package. A couple of the autobiographical strips are engaging, I suppose, but even “My Mom Was A Schizophrenic,” revelatory in comics on its first appearance, is borderline unreadable now. C-
Tales of Woodsman Pete by Lilli Carré (2006): Tales of Woodsman Pete concerns primarily the title character, who lives alone in his log cabin and talks to the stuffed bucks on his wall and the dead bear (he names him Philippe) on the floor. It’s funnier and more morbid than it sounds. Carré’s droll, jazzily loopy drawings have an old-timey woodcut feel, which is helped by the off-white paper and deep blue ink. Most of the stories are no longer than five or six pages, and indeed the vignettes feel like stand-up comedy done in comics form, if the comedian had drank too much moonshine and spent a few years in solitary confinement. Paul Bunyan makes a couple of appearances, mostly so that we can see how this mythological figure’s life would have played out if we watched him going about the everyday—hint: his sex life stinks; he keeps accidentally killing his lady friends. As the comic progresses, Carré infuses the dark comedy with sadness, but it feels like a teenager’s version of moroseness. And ending things with a flood is juvenile, not profound. But she’s a cartoonist on the make—as a jokester, she’s terrific. B
The Last of Her Kind by Sigrid Nunez (2006): Two girls—Georgette George and Ann Drayton—meet at Barnard College, in 1968. Georgette (known as George) comes from a hardscrabble family in upstate New York—her mom is verbally and physically abusive; her sister Solange runs away at age 14; her brother gets emotionally shattered by Vietnam. Ann—leftist, passionate and hardheaded—is a rich girl from Connecticut who makes life hell for everyone. Through them, we see the 1960s and its aftermath played out in America. George tells the story—understandably, as Ann spends half her life in prison after killing a cop—and her sharp, no-nonsense, deceptively simple voice gives the last 40 years a deep resonance. Hippies, Black Panthers, Weathermen, Young Republicans, feminists, Partisan Review-esque public intellectuals, dropouts, and more all get their due, and are recreated without sentimentality, mean-spiritedness (okay, a little mean-spiritedness), or oversimplification. The whole kitchen sink’s here, but Nunez’s supple prose and rich characterization keeps the book from being a mere summarization of the 1960s. A tremendously ambitious novel about what America has done to itself over all these years, The Last of Our Kind dazzles, disturbs, and delights in equal measures. A+
Black Hole by Charles Burns (2005): A comic book with teeth, Black Hole gave me nightmares. Deep in the wastelands of suburban Seattle, circa 1976, sexually active kids are being smitten with the Bug. It’s like no STD you’ve ever seen—your skin might peel off, or you might grow you a tail or horns or slimy spikes on your abdomen, or you might wake up to discover a small mouth at the base of your neck… that talks, even when you’re not saying anything. Burns’s metaphor about the fears and anxieties of American sex burns deep, and gets complicated as we grow to care about these deformed kids, and deplore their outcast lives out in the forest. And that’s before people start dying. Burns’s art is thick-lined, with the richest black inking I’ve ever seen—it’s dark and hard enough to shine, like an electric eel. And, like an eel, the comic hides ferocity and danger just beneath the meticulously, shadowy, high-contrast art design. It’s American adolescence as German Expressionism or high noir, and even those who escape to (relatively) happy endings feel doomed or at least forever on-guard. It’s creepier than David Lynch, because Burns is more tied to everyday experience (we all know high school was this dreadful), and Black Hole ultimately make more sense. A