Sunday, May 20, 2012

This Week's Good Read

A Comic Drama by Alison Bechdel

Six years ago, Alison Bechdel published "Fun Home," a memoir in comics form that centered primarily on her father. That book caused something of a sensation. Now she has come out with a companion piece of sorts, a memoir that focuses on her relationship with her mother.

Except it's not really a companion piece at all. The two books are quite different. The earlier book is more focused and coherent. Of course, the dramatic nature of Bechdel's father's death helps make it a compelling narrative. This book has no such built-in hook. Bechdel's mother is still alive, so the story has neither a real beginning nor nicely wrapped up ending.

This book starts with Bechdel trying to figure out how to tell her mother about the other book. Actually, it starts with a dream. The book is in seven chapters, and each of them opens with a dream. On the next page, she says "I had the dream about the brook right before I told my mother I was writing a memoir about my father." Bechdel presents herself driving in her car, alone, imagining scenarios, how she might tell her mother, how her mother might react. A few pages later comes the actual revelation.

So one of the things this book is about is writing the earlier book and how that affected her relationship with her mother. It is also about Bechdel's history of psychotherapy, particularly her relationship with two therapists, here called Jocelyn and Carol, and about how her attempts to understand psychotherapy also led her to reading everything she could about the subject. She shows herself reading - and presents excerpts from - Freud and Jung, for instance. She also is quite taken with a book called "The Drama of the Gifted Child" by Alice Miller. It is through Miller she discovers Donald Winnicott, whose ideas about the relationship between mothers and their children become one of the foundations of the book.

The book is also a continuation of Bechdel's own autobiography. If the ealier book concentrated primarily on her childhood, this book presents her young and middle adulthood, including her three longest lasting romantic relationships.

And the book is also about its own writing. Bechdel makes frequent references to it, and it is of course a frequent topic of conversation between her mother and her whenever she presents meetings between them that took place during the writing of it.

That's a lot of topics for one book, even a book of dense prose, much less a book presented in comics form. In the first section, she tells her mother that she has to rewrite the book, start over completely.

"Ha!" says her mother. "You have too many strands!"

"I do," Bechdel agrees. "I just need to tell a story."

"Yes. Narrative is what they want."

"But it's hard to figure out what the story is."

Near the end of the book, Bechdel's mother responds to the first four chapters of the book, which is all that Bechdel had managed to get drawn at the time. She thinks it coheres, and has clear themes. Her final pronouncement is: "It's … it's a metabook."

This strikes a resonant chord with the author, who presents herself saying "Yeah! It is!"

This conversation is introduced with the following note:

"The story has no end. But now it's five years later, and I must manufacture one."

It's a valiant effort, and the book does cohere, in its own way, and it does have clear themes. But it's not really a story, not the way the earlier book was a story. And frankly, while it's well worth reading, "Are You My Mother?" is not, finally, nearly as good a book as "Fun Home." If you haven't read that earlier book, go out and find it now and read it. If you loved it and are looking for more of the same, this isn't quite it. But it is engaging and thought-provoking and well worth your time and money.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Crime Does Not Pay!

Collection Edited by John Lind and Philip Simon
224 Pages, KLA/Dark Horse, $19.99 (softcover)
Originally published September 2011

In 1942, a new kind of magazine appeared on newstands, featuring a retelling in comic book form of true crime stories. It was conceived by co-editors Charles Biro and Bob Wood, and published by Lev Gleason. The first issue was number 22, because in those days comic book publishers would just rename and renumber a failed series rather than canceling it and starting a new one. Silver Streak Comics #21 was followed by Crime Does Not Pay #22. Publishers did this to save money on second-class postage permits.

The title wasn't original. MGM had produced a series of shorts by the same title with the same theme, which had in turn spawned a radio show of the same name that started in 1935 and was still on the air when the comic book began.

Although started while the superhero craze was still in full swing, it became one of the best selling comic books in history, and as the superhero fad faded it would spawn an amazing number of imitations, including Crime Exposed, Crime Can't Win, Crime Must Pay the Penalty, and many, many more. There were thirty new crime comics titles published in 1948 alone. The producers of Crime Does Not Pay even produced their own imitation, Crime and Punishment.

In the third issue, Biro introduced "Mr. Crime," a ghostly narrator of some of the tales who would egg on the protagonists, comment sarcastically on their exploits and often pronounce an inevitable moral at the end of the tale. Denis Kitchen asserts here that Mr. Crime was the forerunner of, and possibly the inspiration for, the hosts from the EC horror comics (The Old Witch, the Vault-Keeper and of course the Crypt-Keeper). He was himself visually a fairly obvious ripoff of Mr. Coffee Nerves, star of a series of advertisements in comic-strip form for Postum, a caffeine-free coffee alternative.

Crime Does Not Pay capitalized on the notoriety of famous mobsters, featuring stories about Lucky Luciano and Machine Gun Kelly - Kelly was portrayed as a henpecked weakling. The magazine also celebrated unknown and obscure figures. Sometimes, the names were changed. Ruth Snyder, who arranged for her lover Henry Judd Gray to murder her husband Albert became "Martha Langley," whose lover Jeff Burke murders her husband Richard. Martha also a beautiful blond. The Snyder case inspired two novels by James M. Cain that later became movies, "Double Indemnity," and "The Postman Always Rings Twice." In both of those, the wife is also a beauty. In real life, it's hard to understand how Ruth Snyder inspired such devotion from not one but two men.

The magazine featured all kinds of crime stories but concentrated on brutal murders. Kitchen quotes one of Biro's artists and having said that Biro told him "You have to know what kid's like … bullets going through the head, brains blowing out the back."

The popularity of crime comics was part of their undoing, as church groups and parent organizations became alarmed at the effect they might be having on children. By the late 1940s, comic book burnings were popular events, and in the early 1950s a Congressional investigation was launched. By the time Comics Code Authority came into existence in 1954, Crime Does Not Pay and other books had toned down to a pale shadow of their original content, and the comic ceased publication in 1955.

One memorable feature of the magazine was its occasional use of schocking images of violence against women on its covers. One of the covers that Frederick Wertham used as an example of how horrible comic books were is reproduced in this volume.

This became retrospectively ironic a few years after the demise of the magazine when Bob Wood made tabloid headlines for his arrest in a lurid story that could have come right out of one of his magazines. After an 11 day binge at a hotel with a divorcee with whom he'd had a relationship for 10 years (whose divorce, according to her relatives, was caused by her relationship with Wood), Wood flew into a rage during a fight about his refusal to marry her and beat her to death with an electric iron, a scene which is depicted on the cover of this book by Pete Poplaski in the style of Biro's covers for the magazine.

If you always wondered what the furor over crime comics of the late 1940s and early 1950s was about, this is an excellent introduction, with some examples that are as much fun to read now as they were half a century ago.