Exquisite creatures of pulp addiction
It's a Man's World: Men's Adventure Magazines, the Postwar Pulps
By Adam Parfrey
(Feral House, 2003; 287 pages)
Sex. Power. War. Publishers of men's magazines have always striven to appeal to the basest of male instincts, particularly after WW II, as soldiers struggled to adapt to a new society booming with suburban sprawl. Consequently, executives funneled hundreds of men's adventure magazines into newsstands, where the rags found their own boom in the consumer frenzy of postwar America. "It's a Man's World" is the most impressive study of these pulps to date.
Faced with a banal scenario of breadwinning domesticity, many men longed for the adrenaline rush of battle. Man as hero, man as rescuer, man as sexual beast: Whatever the machismo fantasy, there was a rag that catered to it. Violence was the flavor of the month and misogyny the crunchy topping.
The telling imagery of such titles as "Untamed" and "Rage for Men" ranges from absurd to disturbing. Man-vs.-beast themes illustrate men (always white) staving off attacks from giant killer rats, while "savages" (always black -- or Arab or Japanese) from strange lands rape and murder helpless women (also white) who all look ridiculously like Bond Girls.
Still, the often-objectionable nature of pulp art doesn't detract from the spectacular illustrations themselves. The masterful artists of pulp might have been listed alongside Rockwell and Wyeth in the annals of great illustrators. But pulps paid the bills; it was ultimately the sensational covers that sold the rags. And luckily for them, there was indeed a demand for copies of "Real Men" that depicted Nazis torturing beautiful, bikini-clad women. Scary thing is, there's probably still a demand for it.
Best part is beating the Bushes
The Great Big Book of Tomorrow: A Treasury of Cartoons
By Tom Tomorrow (St. Martin's Griffin, 2003; 208 pages)
Hey there Tom Tomorrow fans! Did you know that once upon a time there was actually a character in "This Modern World" named Tom Tomorrow? Did you know that before Sparky the Wonder Penguin was so named, he was dubbed "Dippy"? Did you know that the first words out of Sparky the Wonder Penguin's mouth, when introduced to the strip in 1991, were, "George Bush is a wanker"?
It's all true, and it's all gathered in "The Great Big Book of Tomorrow." Tomorrow, real name Dan Perkins, is perhaps the most ubiquitous, most influential cartoonist of a generation. And though Perkins' clip-art style is often imitated, his biting, insightful political commentary is seldom equaled.
Looking back on his early work, it's eerie how right he was about the shape of the future. We take it for granted that consumer culture consuming itself and the politics of the ridiculous are the stuff cartoons are made of (at least the cartoons favored by the alternative press), but when Perkins started publishing his work in the 1980s it was immediately apparent that he was on to something fresh. That's the reason he went from copy-shop employee to being published in more than 100 alternative papers, The New York Times, the New Yorker and other flashy venues.
"The Great Big Book of Tomorrow" is Perkins' most complete collection to date, and features a gorgeous section of his color work. His (mis)treatment of papa and son Bush is worth the price of admission alone.
The future looks like the '50s
All Meat Looks Like South America
By Bruce McCall
(Crown, 2003; 120 pages)
Though he's been working since 1982 and his juxtapositions of the mundane and the utterly implausible have appeared in the National Lampoon and Vanity Fair, my first exposure to Bruce McCall's work was on the May 31, 1999, cover of the New Yorker. It presented a parallel-universe Times Square, in which couples in evening dress strolled past the Shakespeare Theatre and the Lily Pons opera house, and billboards and neon signs advertised harpsichord recitals, Rolls-Royces and "Escar-to-go" -- a far cry from both the porn-riddled, sleazy Times Square of the recent past and Giuliani's Disneyfied, "family-friendly" version.
This atmosphere of deadpan incongruity pervades "All Meat Looks Like South America," the illustrator/humorist's latest book. In a flat, almost crude graphic style, he illustrates with a wistful nostalgia a world that once was or could have been ... while his acerbic text eviscerates that sentimentality. Inspired, he says, by "Popular Mechanics magazines from the '30s ... and the bold new worlds that people have been predicting every decade now for a hundred years," he revisits a time when magazines presented articles about the "The World's Seven New Travel Wonders" or diagrammed "The Doctor's Waiting Room of Tomorrow" -- always, oddly, strongly resembling the era in which they were created. So, in "All Meat," we have "Our Energy-free Transportation Future," in which "Highways will come alive with the boing-boing-boing of sporty pogo kars and the steady brrrrrrrr of key-wound, clockwork-powered cars and trucks"; and "Mr. Bush Has a Dream," the illustrated text of an imagined presidential speech: "Hello, this is your President speaking. Have I got an environmental plan for you!"
Perhaps McCall's citizenship -- he's Canadian -- accounts for the mirror-world quality of his creations. I want to live in the New York he imagines, where Times Square is a popular cultural Mecca and the subway cars are moving libraries, filled with long oak tables and brass lamps, plastered with placards advertising cures for writer's block and stern signs cautioning "Silence Please" and "No Editing!"
Read in quick two-page bites, "All Meat Looks Like South America" briefly disconnects your perceptions from the ordinary. You'll see the strangeness of the everyday world and, perhaps, how easily it might have been entirely different.
Picture Show: Classic Movie Posters
From the TCM Archives
Foreword by Robert Osborne, text by Dianna Edwards
(Chronicle Books, 2003; 287 pages)
There was a time when Hollywood didn't resort to flashing Tara Reid's lascivious midriff on a poster to sell a movie. Movie posters were once a true art form. Ted Turner remembers such a time, and although to celluloid purists Turner is the devil in a colorized blue dress, it's thanks to the TCM archives that more than 150 posters from Hollywood's golden age have been replicated in "Picture Show."
These dynamic images recall a time when a movie poster was a separate artistic entity from the film it was peddling -- and a time when America still boasted real movie stars. Greta Garbo, Errol Flynn, Jean Harlow and virtually every other star and starlet of the day are resurrected in posters from the hard-boiled, musical, romantic and action-packed movies that defined Hollywood.
The vibrant, almost-animated posters in Picture Show hail from a long-gone era when movie posters were meticulously illustrated and many were hand-lettered. Bold colors jump off the paper and light seems to literally bounce off the fluid images. Some of the posters are familiar titles: "Casablanca," "Singin' in the Rain," "King Kong." But plenty more depict movies that won't ring any bells for most people, movies like "The Outlaw" starring femme fatale Jane Russell, or a bull-wrangling Robert Mitchum in "The Lusty Men."
Noirs, comedies or swashbuckling epics, whatever the genre, the fact that so many of these posters have outlived their respective movies is great testament to the passion that went into them -- which was sometimes more than went into the movies themselves.
New days, old ways
Living on the Earth
By Alicia Bay Laurel
(Gibbs Smith, Publisher, revised and updated 2003; 256 pages)
My forgotten copy of the handwritten, hand-illustrated 1970 sensation by Alicia Bay Laurel (not her real last name, but her favorite kind of tree) was gifted in the early '80s by an old friend who really was a hippie. (My friend sewed pink and turquoise satin cowboy shirts for Country Joe and the Fish in the Woodstock era and took orange sunshine every day for a year.) By 1980, the peace-and-love hippie era was laughable, having transitioned into the apocalypse-readying New Age movement that was growing under the radical tutelage of bibles such as "Survival Into the 21st Century" by Viktoras Kulvinskas (published in 1975 in a similar style adorned by simple drawings).
Then and now, Bay Laurel's enduring "Living on the Earth" smartly serves as a sweeping encyclopedia of do-it-yourself instructions for simple, quiet living, removed from urban chaos -- all in her own handwriting. It is timeless. The amount of practical and concise information is staggering. There are straightforward how-to entries on making an outdoor latrine, a solar oven, tire-tread sandals and a guitar. There's herbal everything, with recipes for healing shampoos, poultices and soups. (In her revised entry on hemp, Bay Laurel does offer the disclaimer that she hasn't inhaled since the '70s but is in favor of hemp as a viable commodity.) Medical advice covers the gamut, from how to bind blisters on a backpacking misadventure to how to birth a baby (with an illustration of a baby oozing out of a hairy triangle).
The writer's changes to her 30-year-old best seller (more than 350,000 sold) do not deface the original's essence, including the minimalist line drawings. The entries now are more relevant, especially with current resource references. Don't focus too much on her introduction page with the sappy greeting, "Hello sun! You came up! We knew you would! You always do! Hoorray for you!" As the author, who still lives and works in Hawaii, explains:
"I tried, in revising the text, to be true to the spirit of the young woman I was then, and included her idealistic introduction. Today, a country household can make its own electricity, and uses the Internet to conduct home businesses and get truthful information on public affairs. I had hoped at the time that living in wilderness would guarantee the awakening of compassion. Today I see this most profound evolution occuring (sic) everywhere. It is key to our survival as a species."
It is amusing to browse through Bay Laurel's drawings. In general, men are wearing clothes. Her women, though, are frequently naked-breasted and nymphlike, dancing through their chores, a reminder that relations between men and women have come a long way, baby. We'll be hearing more from the writer in the coming year; her new book, "Make Peace: 50 Recipes," should arrive in April 2004. And plans are underway for "Still Living on the Earth: A Dictionary of Sustainable Means," "a compendium of twenty-first century developments in permaculture life."
Lindy T. Shepherd
Smooth but nutty brews
Shopgirl (Theia, 2001, 130 pages) and The Pleasure of My Company: A Novel (Hyperion Press, 2003; 163 pages)
By Steve Martin
Maybe you can't finish a Steve Martin book while the folks at Barnes & Noble are making your coffee, but the brevity of the actor/comedian's novellas, "Shopgirl and The Pleasure of My Company," does tempt one to read and reshelve -- after coffee. Not helping those larcenous thoughts is the consideration of expense: Released in 2000, the hardback 130-page Shopgirl went for $17.95, and the recently released "Pleasure," weighing in at 163 pages, goes for $19.95. No wonder I read both of these over grande mocha frappuccinos.
The critically acclaimed, best-selling Shopgirl is Martin's first foray into fiction. The book follows Mirabelle, an employee at Neiman Marcus' often-overlooked glove counter, through a few of her typical relationships, both friendly and romantic. But our heroine -- depressed, shy -- cannot find substance with her empty friends or empty life. When a new relationship with a wealthy businessman twice her age begins, Shopgirl displays Martin's genius for understanding human motivation. The all-knowing, present-tense narration provides a dreamy, ghost-tour quality. The author's Spartan writing style makes you appreciate almost every word of this funny, frequently sexual, beautiful story.
The Pleasure of My Company gives us a defective hero: Daniel Cambridge has a string of neuroses that leave him largely trapped in his Santa Monica apartment. Luckily, many of his adventures come to him, like the love interests that Daniel sees daily out his window or his weekly home-based therapy sessions. Conquering his biggest fear, stepping over curbs, affords Daniel his greatest adventure: a road trip to his grandmother's house in Texas, escorted by his ex-therapist. Writing from Daniel's point of view perhaps allows the still word-stingy Martin extra creativity, since the character is part genius, part nuts. Pleasure is funny, sad and profound, often at the same time.