Jessica Abel


self published comic

           In many mediums, you'll find women artists digging themselves into their own pigeonholes, stridently declaring their super-strengths over men while simultaneously licking the wounds created by the said pigs. Thankfully, a new generation of literate female comic book artists goes beyond the battle of the sexes toward more universal imagery and ideas; Jessica Abel, creator of the self-published (and grant-funded!) Artbabe, is one of them.

           Thus, you will not find cock-chopping chicks spewing men-are-scum rants in the pages of Artbabe. This is a world of beautiful, cool-to-the-core people. Considering Abel's immaculate figure drawing, at first glance this comic may look like alt-Barbies on parade. But she transcends her superficial tendencies with powerful vignettes that explore emotional tug-of-wars, such as dealing with a freeloading friend, or coping with a sexually charged but inherently doomed relationship.

           The story "Jack London" is best at incorporating all of Abel's talents as it contrasts the stale fluorescent chill of an office environment with the refreshing and comforting cold of a late February blizzard in Chicago. Abel's outdoor illustrations perfectly capture the purity of a low-visibility landscape, a pixelated world that alters perceptions and priorities both. In romanticizing rosy cheeks, silly wardrobes, and the camaraderie of foul weather, this story almost makes you yearn for a freak flurry at the height of summer--to create such a sentiment credits the power of Abel's pen, to say the least. $3. Jessica Abel, P.O. Box 642773, Chicago, IL 60664-2773 (Heidi Olmack)

Joel Sanders, ed.

STUD: Architectures of Masculinity

Princeton Architectural Press

           Much of academia is straining to be sexy these days, and STUD is an admirable case in point. The seven essays here, which cast a studious eye on intersections between the built environment and the construction of modern manhood, are far outnumbered by visual art and design projects from the likes of Andrea Zittel, Matthew Barney, Vito Acconci, Rem Koolhaas, Philippe Starck, and others. The plenitude of art and a seductively trendy design encourage the reader to hopscotch around the book--insofar as one can skip through the linguistic and conceptual acrobatics of academic writing.

           But STUD's contributors attempt to live up to the book's design, infusing their theoretical ponderings with a pop culture sensibility (and thankfully, there's barely a mention of the skyscraper-as-phallus). Ellen Lupton, for instance, shows how an electric carving knife--the first kitchen appliance designed for men--is not just an electric carving knife; and Lee Edelman offers an extensive analysis regarding temptation and taboo in guys' restrooms (just why are urinals always set out in the open?). Other essays show variously how Rock Hudson's bachelor pad in Pillow Talk, the U.S. Airforce Academy, and the layout of Freud's office both reflect and influence the masculine mind.

           Yet even hipster academics tend to build a near-impenetrable wall of arguments around a few good points; the adage, "it's not the length, it's the girth" applies to most of STUD's essays. The better ones also tend to hold observation or history over theory, such as Marcia Ian's discussion of the chiefly male "Apollon" gym, where she's been bodybuilding for eight years, or George Chauncey's chronicle of gays' use of New York's public spaces. Another highlight is a two-part, 1956 article from Playboy showcasing the design of a bachelor's dream penthouse--a primary source document that needs no academic embellishment. Sometimes playful and sometimes ponderous, all in all, STUD's got quite an attractive package. (Julie Caniglia)

David Wojnarowicz

The Waterfront Journals

Grove Press

           In an age of self-confession, there's something to be said for telling other people's stories--it's easier, for instance, to cut out someone else's ramblings and get to the heart of the matter. David Wojnarowicz--artist, writer, activist, and recently deceased (from AIDS, in 1992) wandering-soul-extraordinaire--plays editor in this posthumous collection of his fellow travellers' adventures. On the road throughout much of the late '70s and early '80s, Wojnarowicz accumulated stories from dozens of strangers in coffee shops, truck stops, motels, and streets around the U.S., all of which he claimed are true (says his own editor, Amy Scholder, in the preface).

           Following in the vein of his autobiographical works Close to the Knives: A Memoir of Disintegration and Memories That Smell Like Gasoline, Wojnarowicz collaborated in the early '90s with British art director Steve McLean on Postcards From America, a feature-length film based on those two works. The dreamy melancholy of Postcards is carried on with Waterfront's three dozen "monologues"--clipped, searing, and Polaroid-precise capturings of lost souls in confession. Wojnarowicz writes equally of lust and wanderlust, and the sex here is gentle and funny ("Man Drinking Coffee in Thirty-third Street Pizzeria--New York City") and terrifyingly cold ("A Kid on the Piers near the West Side Highway--New York City"); most of it is also anonymous and desperate. But Wojnarowicz also surprises us with a few moments of shelter and salvation ("The Waterfront 2:00 a.m.--New York City"). A witness to spilled guts over bottomless coffee cups, he keeps the real "authors" of Waterfront in the spotlight, but he's smart enough to add the insights of a kindred spirit. (Matt Keppel)  

Charles Bukowski

Betting on the Muse: Poems and Stories

Black Sparrow Press

           This collection of Bukowski's work--the first composed entirely of material never before published--makes one believe he is still alive, getting drunk, laughing at us. While he still drew breath, Bukowski cranked out more than 45 titles for Black Sparrow, books in which he peered at life from his own observation decks: the bar, the racetrack, the dashboard of his car, the blinds of his window. By contrast, many of the poems in Betting on the Muse consider the crapshoot of the creative process; in these reflections, the reader discovers that it is not only the infamous experiences of Charles Bukowski that make his poetry unforgettable, but also his imagination.

           Bukowski has always written like an animal backed into a corner. His chronicles of urban despair have been unmatched for their intensity, honesty, and vulgarity, and this book is no exception. Through all this raunch, however, Bukowski finds sophistication, elegance, and the triumph of the human spirit hiding in secret places. In an age where to be a writer seems like just another accessory to one's personality, Bukowski's insane relationship with his typewriter is an indispensable part of himself. An L.A. City College dropout, he's long been despised by Academia. Yet Betting on the Muse reveals his love of both reading and writing. It also shows that Charles Bukowski, one of the baddest of the bad guys, might have more insight into the human experience than all the supposed good guys put together. (Paul D. Dickinson)



           Just as old vaudevillians found new life in radio and then TV, the Oxbridge-educated upper class wits of Monty Python have moved from TV to movies, to CD-ROM, and now to the Internet. Since other activities have drawn some of the troupe away (to death, trains, training films, flop movies, and history books), it's left to Eric Idle and Terry Gilliam to adapt to cyberspace. Do they find new life? Well, "new life" may not be a proper standard by which to judge a Python; to say that they renew naughty old habits is probably more apt. Idle has done most of the work here, and the fey wickedness of his Web-writing--and its intentionally pieced-out structure--is definitely in line with past satiric and parodic glories. Like cobwebbed old reruns, it provides unique comic relief.

           Subdivided as websites are, this one offers a join-up Spam Club ("the most rapidly swelling organ in America"), a database search option (for randomized expressions of abuse), games to play (if you download the special software), chat rooms (and "chit" rooms), and, of course, merchandise. The pages are mostly black-and-white, with leering line drawings by Gilliam, but they have a certain dry energy that proves Idle is still truly active--and yes, even interactive. He makes an easy but very sharp jab at Royal sex romps by putting "Princess Di" in a chat room; creative timing makes it seem as if she and various randy pals are exchanging furtive comments: "Di.Com: Watch it Stinky, you know the tabloids are tapping everything. /Neddy: I'd like to tap your little botty sugar. / Oh stop. You know I love it when you type dirty." It's all so English, as in politely angry, and because Idle invites questions and provides updates, it's a place to pop in regularly. I'm going back soon to ask about this Tiggy Legge-Bourne person. (Phil Anderson)

Panic Encyclopedia: The Definitive
Guide to the Postmodern Scene

           With no windows, no clocks, and no chaperones, it's easy to see the Net as a virtual Vegas--at least if you adhere to postmodernism. Casting into the future while willfully deconstructing the present, pomo theory has a long line of thinkers, teachers, and philosophers behind it, and bringing them together is Panic Encyclopedia: The Definitive Guide to the Postmodern Scene. Surfers looking for splashy visual aids to define the postmodern movement won't find them here, however. Some select art, by Mark Kostabi and Ed Kienholz, for example, serves to reflect postmodern theory, but Panic mainly serves up essays and articles on postmodernism and its "key psychological mood": you guessed it, panic.

           With an A to Z index that touches on such subjects as Panic Elvis, Panic Sex, Panic Zombies, and Panic Babies, the alphabetical listings serve as a "post-alphabetic description of the actual dissolution of facts into the flash of thermonuclear cultural 'events' in the postmodern situation." OK. In plain English, what Panic Encyclopedia discusses are topics like Elvis's demise as a sacrifice of the Sun King, American style; the cowboy conquering the frontier giving way to the conquering of cyberspace; the suburbs being only a "real imitation of life"; and Eugenics as Eu(jean)ics--after a close study of the ads from Ralph Lauren, Esprit, and Jordache, that is. Sure Panic is academic--Jean Baudrillard pops up all over the place--but you might also start wondering just how Pavlovian your own response is to a culture that tells us what we need, when we need it, and why. And you thought the Net was nothing but fun and games and dirty pictures. (Vickie Gilmer)  


Deadly Advice

Evergreen Entertainment

           Black comedies always get a bum rap. Occupying that tiny square of film territory in which reprehensible and gruesome acts not only make you laugh but also usually go unpunished, it's no small wonder that Hollywood rarely churns them out. So leave it to the British. Taking the underlying malevolence of shows like Absolutely Fabulous to its logical conclusion is Jodie Greenwood. Played by Jane Horrocks (who starred as the cranky teen anti-heroine in Mike Leigh's Life is Sweet, and was more recently seen as Bubble on AbFab), she's a miserable woman kept under constant surveillance by her mother (Brenda Fricker). Unable to see her way to independence, Jodie soon finds herself on the business end of supernatural visits from murderers like Jack the Ripper, all of whom offer advice on how to rid herself of pesky family members. Though not as deliriously irreverent as John Waters's Serial Mom, it's a wonderfully mean-spirited take on the idea of death as a means to transformation and growth. And it's more than enough to finally see the talented Jane Horrocks take a star turn. (Andrew Peterson)

Lyrical Nitrate

Kino Video

           It's the end of the world as we know it--not because anything terribly apocalyptic has happened, but because it's always the end of the world as we know it. Remember Heraclitus? All is flux. Only change endures. In every instant of every epoch, new things are coming into existence and old things are taking on new forms or passing away. You wake up one morning to find your neighbors have invented the wheel; by noon, they're driving around in Toyotas. Meanwhile in Egypt, the pyramids continue to crumble.

           The impermanence of everything, the endlessness of time--plenty of artworks explore these themes. The special interest of Lyrical Nitrate is that it embodies them: What we have here is not exactly a film in its own right, but rather an anthology of images and brief sequences, snipped from a moldering cache of silent films which turned up in the attic of an Amsterdam cinema. These snippets--toned sepia, gold, red, and blue, and sometimes handcolored--are ravishing in themselves, but the real power of Lyrical Nitrate resides in the way it conjures and preserves a lost past. I watched it thinking, This is what Europe looked like in the early 20th century. And that period will never come again. My favorite bit was a traveling shot of buildings along the waterfront, taken from a boat. No human beings visible, just the brick structures going by, twinned by their reflections in the still water; and iridescent patches--green, yellow, blue--flashing around the edges of the frame, where the nitrate-based film stock is returning to dust. Heartbreaking. (Steve Schroer)


Facets Multimedia

           Chronicling life in a Rhineland village from the aftermath of World War I to the end of the Cold War, the epic Heimat was made for German television, but caused a sensation when it was shown in theaters throughout Europe and North America during the mid-'80s, and later on PBS. Edgar Reitz asks much from his audiences--16 hours of their time in an age when waiting 30 seconds for a computer function seems like cruel and unusual punishment--but in return, he offers one of the most compelling experiences from the past hundred years of cinema. You watch villagers being born, growing up, falling in love, getting sucked into Nazism, dealing with Germany's defeat, facing the indelible shame of genocidal murder, coping with the constraints of small town life, and engaging in the ordinary cycles of eating, drinking, flirting, fighting, and fretting. Indeed, after experiencing the novelistic scope of Heimat, most other movies take on the unsatisfying sketchiness of a short story.

           In a movie of this duration, stylish camera work and intricate plot twists would grow very, very stale. Instead, Reitz earns our attention with subtle and well-crafted filmmaking, engrossing characters, and the subject of the century: the 20th century itself. As they struggle with a constant barrage of technological, political, social, moral, and economic upheaval, these German villagers seem to represent all citizens of the modern world. Reitz portrays all this with a feel for the basic humaneness that guides people through even the most horrible situations, and a gentle message that perhaps we pay too little attention to the importance of home in our lives. Available from Facets Multimedia, 1517 W. Fullerton Ave., Chicago 60614; (800) 331-6197 (Jay Walljasper) CP

           Why do rock critics love the Mekons so fiercely? Is it their perennial underdog status? Their self-awareness in making "authentic" rock & roll in a late-stage capitalist marketplace? Their willingness to give themselves up to the music anyway, and to wallow in emotion rather than irony? Their love for American country and roots music (and dub, and club music, etc., etc.)? Their coulda-been-an-academic-but-fuck-that intelligence? Their willingness to (sometimes) take rock critics seriously? Their romantic existentialism? Their boozy sense of tragedy? Their boozy sense of slapstick? Their boozy sense of community? Their booziness?

           Yeah. And now, with the publication of Mekons United, a handsome art catalogue for the group's show at Florida's Polk Museum of Art earlier this year, there's a rich new layer of Mekonalia to savor and read into. The visuals include ink drawing, paintings, and digital artworks, ranging from lush oils of angelic proles, to nightmare visions of Hank Williams as St. Sebastian (pictured here), to abstract computer graphics, all presented with a group attribution. Texts include famous Mekon essays by Greil Marcus and Lester Bangs; a self-reflexive, sulfate-addled segment of a group novel-in-progress; and critical writings from various collaborators that touch on the divide between modernism and post-modernism, the homoerotics of spectator sports, and the difficulty of getting out of bed in the morning. The accompanying CD is a new, full-length Mekons selection that deserves more discussion than there is room for here. On it, techno beats sputter like a looming apocalypse, Sally Timms reprises Fear and Whiskey's beautifully doomed "Last Dance," and a Tex-Mex waltz tells of a guitarist with a mouth that "spews vinyl and wax" and eyes like "an old 45 that somehow never quite charted."

           Capping this particular Year of the Mekons are two more CDs. The Return of Rico Bell is a set of honky-tonk tragedies and drifter tunes by the part-time accordionist Rico Bell, with backup from various members of the extended Mekons family. Bell's voice has mellowed a bit since his reading of "Sweet Dreams" on the Mekon's The Edge Of The World, a great 1986 release now reissued for all to rediscover. That record opens with "Hello Cruel World," one of the group's defining moments. "I heard you singing/You sounded brave," Tom Greenhalgh sings with a slight tremor, and what I always felt he meant is that he is, and the group is, and we all are. Brave, and foolish, and staring down death, and sometimes--mercifully--singing. (Will Hermes)

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