Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Hergé & Tintin: An Appreciation

Lately I’ve been thinking about the Belgian artist Georges Remi (1907-1983), better known by his pen name Hergé, and his marvelous use of color, the bright colors of his idealistic protagonist Tintin’s comic world, populated by funny friends and sunny ideals of loyalty, decency, and valor—their hues as reliable as the tight rows of panels that fill the pages of the Tintin books, as constant as the ever-loyal Tintin himself. Hergé, perhaps in accordance with his personal conservatism, offers readers the pleasures of a steadfast orderliness, a model of stability in form and detail: consistency and continuity are virtues inseparable from the ligne claire style he created. Having begun the series in 1929 in black and white, by mid-century Hergé had a staff of assistants to help him rearrange, color, and extensively revise his earlier volumes; with motives that bridged the commercial and the aesthetic, he went to considerable lengths to revise his earlier books to conform to later choices, in color, style, format, and overall unity. There is no question that the “colorized” versions are final, definitive, canonical. The entire series Les Aventures de Tintin coheres accordingly.

Hergé’s cast of characters exists to charm the reader. Tintin, virtuous but amiably down-to-earth, is accompanied by both his faithful fox terrier Milou (renamed Snowy in the English version), whose opinionated canine perspective is conveyed in thought balloons with human language, and Captain Haddock, a blustering sailor whose outbursts make him a kind of one-man storm-at-sea. Like this sea captain named after a fish, the absentminded and partially deaf Professor Tournesol (a name that means both “sunflower” and “litmus” in French, but became Professor Calculus in English), the blundering detectives Dupond et Dupont (a.k.a. Thomson and Thompson), and the overbearing opera diva Bianca Castafiore, are each a walking bundle of conspicuous comic set-ups, all designed to run afoul of one another, but each is also a figure rendered lovable by its creator’s ability to measure and mix displays of egocentricity, eccentricity, and underlying good intentions into an instantly recognizable portrait of the human comedy. This beloved comic “family” is inseparable from Hergé’s commitment to narrative construction: his creatures require fully formed stories in which to fumble, bumble, and ultimately thrive. Hergé believed in carefully orchestrated plots. He loved cinema and wanted to make comics-as-movies.

Hergé’s habit of peppering a story with mini-cliffhangers every two pages—crises often resolved only a moment after being introduced—is a fortuitous byproduct of having first serialized the stories in brief increments. When conceiving or re-conceiving the adventures as books, he knew to preserve the cinematic pratfalls, surprises, false alarms, and sudden bursts of danger that punctuate and pace the narrative. This, coupled with the almost statically decorative ambience of the art, makes for an interesting balance. Encountering the entire Tintin series is like watching a lovely folded paper dropped into water where it continuously unfolds, not into a flower but into a montage of cheerfully constructed images of amusing characters in impeccably rendered settings, bouncing and bumping along through adventures that despite all the vigorous action and danger and hairbreadth escapes are essentially a succession of pratfalls, punctuated by moments of catching one’s breath, dusting oneself off with dignity, and reasserting, in various ways, goodness and comradeship. The overall effect is of serene chaos, and it is oddly pleasing.

Tintin au Tibet (Tintin in Tibet, 1960), Hergé’s favorite among his own works, is also the favorite of many critics. Often hailed as the best French-language graphic novel ever, it is both the epitome of, and a departure from, the Tintin series. The comedic touches, sense of adventure, exotic locale, and moral idealism are all there, but the regular cast has been narrowed to Tintin, Captain Haddock, and Milou, and there is no villain, no police work, no crime; yet the emotional stakes have been raised considerably. Tintin, inspired by a dream vision, is determined to rescue an old friend reported lost in a plane crash in the mountains of Tibet, and he refuses to give up the seemingly illogical search despite growing evidence that there were no survivors. The enemy, apart from the unforgiving natural elements, is self-doubt, uncertainty, despair—in other words, the hero is faith and the “villain” is excessive rationality. Tintin’s tenacity is put to a test that is more personal, more affecting, than ever before, turning the story into a powerful tribute to unwavering friendship in the face of adversity. Or, as Hergé himself put it (as revealed in Pierre Assouline’s Hergé: The Man Who Created Tintin, translated by Charles Ruas), “It’s the story of a friendship, the way people say, ‘It’s a love story.’” It is also a story of human dignity and spiritual conviction, and graphically, in its contrast of crisp but forbidding white expanses of snow with the otherwise colorful components of Tintin’s world, it is the apotheosis of ligne claire, proof that a style sometimes characterized as flat, rigid, or limited can in fact provide the perfect (and perfectly rich) frame for a consummately humane work of art.


And for further reading... The Paris Review has published my essay on the great French comics artist Jean “Moebius” Giraud, Moebius and the Key of Dreams.


Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Folio Club Books announces new e-books, celebrates the work of Truman Capote

The Folio Club is pleased to announce the publication of two short e-books containing work by its founding editor, Robert Pranzatelli.

A Chameleon Poet: Truman Capote is an essay that takes readers on a tour of the subtle artfulness of a great American writer’s prose style, examining Truman Capote’s famous and famously varied body of work to reveal the hidden dynamics behind its masterful effects. In doing so, it sheds new light on the legacy of a literary chameleon.

“A beautifully made essay that opens up a writer I thought I knew . . . A lovely piece.” —Jeff Sharlet, bestselling author of The Family

“A compelling and necessary angle on the always dynamic Capote . . . A very fine essay by a very fine critic.” —William Giraldi, author of the novels Busy Monsters and Hold the Dark

Also newly published and from the same author is String Quartet: Four Stories, a selection of short stories originally published in the Folio Club literary journal (including the title story plus “Free-Floating Faith,” “Glass Cabinets,” and “Sterling”), now brought together for the first time.

Both books are available via all major e-book distributors, including the Apple iBookstore, Amazon (for Kindle), Barnes and Noble (for Nook), Kobo, Lulu.com, and others.

Cover images by Onsmith.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Folio Club Books announces publication of Romy Ashby’s long-awaited novel, Stink

Twenty years ago, Romy Ashby published The Cutmouth Lady, a remarkable collection of six related stories. In the years since, the book has acquired cult status, and its devotees have followed with great pleasure its author’s subsequent endeavors: as a writer of nonfiction, as an interviewer, and as a songwriter with Blondie. Yet they—we—have waited in vain for a second work of fiction, until now.

The Folio Club is pleased to announce the publication of Stink. Written two decades ago (after the stories in The Cutmouth Lady) but never before published, Stink is a wild lark of a novel that its author calls, aptly, both a time capsule and a curio.

The book’s narrator is Adlai, born as what was then commonly called a hermaphrodite, who sets off into adulthood as a male, to forge an identity in a coastal city teeming with life, mystery, and eccentricity (and teeming, too, with odors of every imaginable kind, in keeping with the novel’s title). Adlai’s gender, however, is only one facet of his identity and almost peripheral to the story, for thanks to his natural curiosity and observational skills he is less interested in himself than in the colorful characters around him. These include, among others, his feisty Uncle Jechiel, an inventor, magician, and poet; his uncle’s favorite verbal sparring partner, Harry, in whose atmospheric shop Adlai learns of the occult arts; several young enthusiasts of the local punk and DIY culture; and Ettie, an elderly lady whose manners and memories hearken back to a jazz-inflected past. As Adlai begins to find a place in both the unusual new community and the strangely shifting realities around him, he stumbles over clues to long-buried secrets entwined with bizarre local mysteries—some of them horrific. Wielding the vivid, sensational palette of a pulp novel and a brush dipped in camp, Romy Ashby has created a brilliantly playful, thoroughly engrossing novel that, like its endearing hero, has an identity all its own.

Chris Stein writes:

Stink starts off with a little dream. On a personal note, I am sort of amazed by the rest of the story’s resemblance to my own dream states and landscapes. Stink is an incantation and exhortation of the love of things gone by, things lost in the alleys of time. Early on we are told that ‘...when they stopped using upholstery in trains and buses...they changed fabric to plastic and people forgot how to love!’ This theme is maintained throughout, but gradually we see that romanticizing the past is perhaps an inevitable side effect of love and magic. And magic abounds here. Today we are absorbed in tech and forget that we still need religion, which in the universe of Stink is indeed magic.”

Debbie Harry writes:

“Romy is such a wonderful writer. I hope there will be further episodes, future tales of these curious people from a charmed city in a more magical time for me to sink my teeth into.”

The Folio Club is delighted that this volume—a treasure unearthed, a long-deferred treat—will initiate its new project, Folio Club Books.

True to its indie origins, Stink will not be available through mass-market retailers upon publication, but exclusively through the author’s website and a very small handful of selected independent booksellers.

Right now, Stink is available from St. Mark’s Bookshop at 136 East Third Street in New York, or you can order direct from the author via her website.

Stink by Romy Ashby / Trim size 5.5" x 8.5" / 240 pages / ISBN: 978-0-692-41965-6 / Official publication month: July 2015

Image: Stink cover design by Michele Burgevin; cover image of the Coney Island Wonderwheel by Chris Stein.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

The Museum Café

by Robert Pranzatelli

From his small table Zach surveyed the art museum’s café with a satirical eye, a predisposition to see strangers as figures in a cartoonist’s sketch: at a table several steps to his right, two jowly older ladies chatted like bantering bulldogs; an elderly gent, nearby, seated alone, scrutinized the block of lasagna placed before him as if to assess its integrity; a young waitress moved with the unselfconscious quirkiness of a talking animal in a children’s animated film. Lines, of pencil or of ink—imagined, recalled, or reimagined—swiveled in and out of his mental view, yet did not obscure his awareness of the clean white table tops, or of the intersection of the institutional and the humane in this warm busy hive defined by polished metal and glass, the hum of conversations at other tables, the quietly clinking cutlery and plates, the slightly overpriced but attractively presented cuisine (he had made quick and satisfactory work of his own lasagna block), and, not far away, a glass wall and its generous gift of natural light.

The expansiveness of that sunlight brought to mind a recent conversation with a friend, a long, calm talk about reality, or realities, about faith, or faiths, about rationalism and its discontents and inadequacies. “All I’m saying,” the friend had said, “is you can’t know. You can’t know either way.” As is the nature of such talks, it had been circuitous and inconclusive; but that day had been greyer than this, and something in its mundane flatness had mutely supported the assertion. Besides, he and Eric essentially agreed, in that both felt as if life specialized in indistinctness, until, every now and then, a stroke of near-clarity offered, fleetingly, a crisper picture, of a setting, an object, a person, a situation—but only one panel in an otherwise uncertain series.

In a corner a young woman sat deep in thought, focused entirely on the screen of her tablet computer. A few feet away, the animated waitress wrote by hand on a pad of paper, and another few feet away a cashier touched the screen of a computerized cash register. To Zach, even the sleekest contemporary equipment seemed far less elegant than a sleekly employed pen and paper, but then of course he usually imagined the hand of an artist, whose pen glides along the lines of his or her thoughts and summons a multitude of times and places to be dealt like cards, shuffled, flipped—played with, but in a way that transcends play. The desert, the sea, snowcapped mountaintops, the jungle—and the large rooms and elaborately odd cityscapes of science fiction—all these had been conjured with mere pen and paper. Such acts of prestidigitation appealed to an inchoate kindred force in him. Not that he considered himself an artist, exactly. He only thought like one: he had the eye but not the hand.

He had spent much of the morning in the prints and drawings gallery—at first glance, the most modest exhibition in the museum, for its works were of far smaller dimensions and, for the most part, less colorful than those in the painting and sculpture galleries, and did not reach out to the passer-by to demand attention. He felt he’d chosen to approach and study their details without being beckoned—and soon he had become transfixed by a vintage print, made from an etching, its 5 x 8 rectangle of existence composed entirely of black and pale grey, filled with sharp yet delicate lines; it depicted a hand and forearm, entering from the right, reaching to grasp a mysterious clothbound book lying on a table as, hovering in the background, a half-open eye bore silent witness to the scene. The wall label revealed the work’s title, Un homme énigmatique, and that it dated from late nineteenth-century France, perhaps inspired by a now-forgotten, or at least unidentified, literary composition; of the artist only an unfamiliar name and the absence of biographical details were offered, an excessive irony given the image’s title.

The shadowy triumvirate of hand, book, eye had the rough evasiveness of a wisp of wood smoke, distinct, even harsh, but ungraspable, and he did not want to reduce it with “understanding” but rather to set it whole into his subconscious as he imagined the artist had, perhaps, summoned it from his own. He stared, he wandered, he returned; and when he felt he had imbibed it as fully as he could, he walked away more definitively, though still in something of a trance. As he emerged from this he stood before a granite staircase, its steps in an ascending spiral, as if they might lead to the tower of a cathedral rather than the upper galleries of the museum; and because the clean pale granite evoked the relatively new rather than the ancient, it conveyed a sense of massive strength (the strength of the historical, the monumental) imported into the quotidian present. By contrast, he thought, highly polished oak—highly reflective and bright, as he had seen in another part of the museum, in a newer building attached to the one in which he now stood—would convey a subtler, more easygoing solidity; even one’s footfalls would resound differently, their character altered by the material of the staircase. He realized, to his satisfaction, that he was standing in a vast structure designed to stimulate these sorts of reflections, and that the outside world, all of it, could be seen as a structure capable of the same effect but on an infinitely vaster scale.

The waitress scurried by, and aromas of cafeteria entrées swirled past as if indicated by a cartoonist’s curling lines, but Zach had reached satiety. He took one last careful, deliberate look around, as if to memorize the line work with which his sibling humans had been drawn, and then he rose to exit, like a man carrying something valuable into the sunny day—but with the intention of sheltering it, perhaps to protect it from erasure.

Copyright 2014 by Robert Pranzatelli. All rights reserved. Originally published in the Folio Club’s Drawing Issue (issue number seven) in 2014.

Image by Onsmith.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Artistic Dignity

“Dignité artistique” (“Artistic Dignity”), a drawing by Lucien Métivet from La Baïonnette No. 46, May 18, 1916. The caption reads: “Je leur mets que je gagne cent mille francs par an…, autrement, ils me traiteraient de raté.”

In English: “I told them I earn a hundred thousand francs a year… otherwise they would treat me like a loser.”

You can learn more about Métivet from this earlier Folio Club blog post and my two subsequent essays about him for the Paris Review, related to his comic take on fashion and his World War One drawings (with slideshow). An abundant selection of additional images can be found on this Tumblr devoted to his work, including a larger version of the drawing above.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Forster & Salinger

What do E. M. Forster and J. D. Salinger have in common? Not a whole lot, one might think, but there are a few interesting parallels. Both men were new year’s babies, exactly forty years apart: Forster born on January 1, 1879, and Salinger on January 1, 1919. Both men lived to the age of ninety-one, passing away in 1970 and 2010 respectively. For authorial identification, each used his first and middle initials rather than his first name; each achieved major success as a novelist by his early thirties; and each became one of the most celebrated writers of fiction in the English language. And both men famously stopped publishing fiction in their mid-forties—but there the paths diverge, for unlike Salinger, who chose to remove himself from the public sphere, Forster continued to publish nonfiction, including biographies, essays, and frequent book reviews, and became a familiar, rather avuncular figure to the British public as a BBC radio broadcaster. Can you imagine Salinger with his own “book talk” on radio? Well, actually, I can—but in a different time and place, in a different life.

One other interesting parallel: Forster is often said to have “abandoned” fiction in midlife but he didn’t entirely; he went on to write a book’s worth of audacious short stories, he meticulously revised the first few chapters of an unfinished novel, and, most importantly, he continued to fine-tune, on and off for a half century, his novel Maurice, which, like the stories, could not be published in its author’s lifetime due to its homosexual theme. All of these works were left for posthumous publication; their relative merits and appropriate place in the Forster library have been debated, but their significance—to both their author and to those of his readers who cherish them—can’t be denied.

And this, perhaps, will be the most significant parallel with Salinger: works awaiting posthumous publication, likely to be disparaged and argued over and only fully embraced decades after their already long-deferred arrival. So here’s to another new year, another anniversary of the births of these two remarkable writers, another question mark as Salinger devotees continue the seemingly endless wait-and-see.

Image: James Wilby and Hugh Grant in the excellent film adaptation of E. M. Forster's Maurice. Here they contemplate their desperate desire for more books by J. D. Salinger.

For further reading:

More of my thoughts about Forster

My post about the film version of Maurice

A selection of favorite Forster quotations

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

That Hill

by Mark Saba

That hill. What was it about that hill?

It was a hill that made his heart jump, a yellow brick that seemed too bright for cars and busses. Too clean.

Today is a day for a dreamsicle, a quarter in his hand, a walk up the long, long hill up from his grandparents’ house and up to the flatter road, then on to that hill. He doesn’t often walk up that hill; he usually only sees it from the back window of their car.

But today he is walking with his sister Katie and yes they are going to walk up that clean bright hill. At the top there is a movie theater. Halfway up there is an ice cream store. But they will not go there, she says; they will go instead to the top and around the bend. There will be another store and that’s where all the dreamsicles are. He usually doesn’t want a dreamsicle but today he does.

They are going up. He watches the bricks and they are not really as clean as they look from the car window. There is a bit of paper here and there and tired looking grass every few bricks, and big oily spots. But there is ice cream at the top and now ice cream in a big store halfway up and they’re not stopping there.

Katie has a loud voice. Sometimes he thinks it is louder than his mother’s or his grandmother’s. Now it is very loud as she explains to him that they just don’t sell dreamsicles in the big ice cream store. They are passing it anyway and there is the yellow hill beside him.

A wide blue car is coming down, turning into the ice cream store which is really a milk store because Katie just said so. And she can read, or else she pretends to which is what he really thinks. But he doesn’t like to fight with her when there’s something to look at. The road.

But soon he has to think about breathing instead because Katie walks fast. And it’s summer and sometimes in summer you can’t breathe because the air is full of steam.


They’re already at the top. Come on, come on, says Katie, but no he will stand right there and not talk but breathe.

Below them is the hill now, coming right up to their feet and to Katie’s twisted up face. God will get her for making those faces. Standing above the yellow road which isn’t yellow anymore, but brown or red.

There are hills far back. They are hills against the sky that is faintly blue and the hills gray. A little smoke comes up behind them—between him and the hills comes the yellow road turning brown or red, the old red school, black and gray and green rooftops, busses and streetcars. But he doesn’t see any of this; he only knows he must look at it while Katie pulls him by the shoulder. He will not know or see it for many years. After twenty years he will slowly come to see it, while living in a similar land very far away.


Later they are on the streetcar. He, his sister, and his mother. His mother is sitting quietly the way she usually sits; Katie is asking her things and sometimes she answers Katie. But he has a big seat to himself. He has already looked at all the faces riding with them. Now it is time to look out the window. There are other hills—they go up and down and the streetcar goes back and forth. He doesn’t see the hills; he feels them because the streetcar feels them and he is with the streetcar.

Every single day he wishes he could ride a streetcar. On the streetcar he doesn’t feel like talking. When his mother talks to him he hears her but he doesn’t turn his head; he doesn’t talk. He’d rather say something to the people outside the window, and they can’t hear him.

Some stores go down and then come up again; then he is thrown back a little on the seat and he has to hold on. Sometimes a pigeon flies along with the streetcar; sometimes it is gray and purple or brown and white and one time it was mostly white. That was a good pigeon to see.

Then there is a pizza store with a little green man holding up a big circle pizza, with brown dots on it. Once he saw a big dark sky, and thunder he could hear, and smell. On a hill way out is a line of tall crosses, a place to put people after they die. And there is a place to put fire engines, a place to put a lot of cars, a place where grandfathers go that has dark windows and pink lights like worms, a place where his mother has a friend and they go to visit her.

Balls roll down streets after people lose them. If they are big speckled balls you can see them but if you’re in a streetcar you can’t get them.

Once when the streetcar stops there is a pet store. Now he will tell her he wants a parakeet. Like Lois next door has, but not that color. One that’s blue. He’ll tell her. Not now, after the streetcar ride. He’ll teach it to talk. To say shut up hello I want some pizza and ice cream.

But there is where the doctor is. He doesn’t like the doctor with the cold hands and bald head that gives him shots every week. He smells like new clothes. New clothes are bad to smell and wear. It’s bad to get them new on Christmas morning instead of toys.

There’s the place where all the new cars are parked with big price tags in their windows. New cars are good to smell. Candles are good to smell too and there they are in the window with statues of church people. Church people don’t live, but you can look at them and look at them until their faces shine. And the man with the big voice starts talking all around you. Everyone gets up and sits down and then again.

There’s an older boy on a red bike like he’ll have. He’s going so fast he’s bending down and passing up the streetcar because it stopped. Another grandmother is getting off slow. Nobody is saying anything until she is off and holding a bag hanging down her arm. She is walking away a grandmother like his down the new hill with big ugly toes coming out the front of her shoes like his grandmother’s, who smells good.

It’s okay to close your eyes if the sun feels like it. The streetcar’s going around a bend now with the sun on it.

She wakes him. The streetcar man is waiting for them to get off. He’s not friendly from behind but then he is if he turns around.

The ground feels moving. She has to use his hand to go across the street. Across the street where his father is sitting in the goodsmelling car with candy, waiting.

Copyright 2014 by Mark Saba. All rights reserved. Originally published in the Folio Club’s Drawing Issue (issue number seven) in 2014.

Image: Mark Saba, self-portrait, oil on canvas.