Hi, Loyal Readers,
The truth is that, in March of 2012, the mental spigot from which English Majeure ideas flowed just stone cold dried up. I stood there next to it, tapping my foot and waiting for some kind of joke about F. Scott Fitzgerald getting a boner to pop out, but there was nothing.
At the same time, I found my interest in narrative comics getting fired back up again. So, for the time being at least, my comic-making energy is being directed into a new project: Otto, Protector of the North Woods, an existential horror-comedy set in northern Minnesota. Check it ou! It’s good! The art’s the best I’ve ever done!
I’ve also put together a handy link for all of my various online comic activities. So you can always swing over there and see if there’s anything to your liking.
Right on. English Majeure may be back at some point if the ideas start flowing. You can never count this stuff out.
42. A Visit from the Goon Squad, Jennifer Egan
Really, really liked it. I think contemporary fiction can run into trouble when the writer tries a big formalist experiment, when the cleverness of whatever’s going on with the structure or point of view can overwhelm any emotion in the piece. And that emphatically wasn’t the cae here. Egan’s floating point of view and drifting timeline added atmosphere without taking away from the human connection to the characters she’d created. Awesome.
As part of my “make English Majeure less of a sausage party” initiative, I felt kind of obliged to do a strip based on Goon Squad. So I did, but I don’t know that it’s one of my favorites.
43. 1969, Alan Moore, Kevin O’Neill
I enjoy the post-Black Dossier League of Extraordinary Gentlemen books, but they do kind of veer back and forth between fascinating, impressive creations and exhausting exercises in spot-the-reference. More the former than the latter, but still…
Also, even though I ultimately understand why he went with a Stones analogue, I do think it’s a little weird that, in a story involving an Aleister Crowley stand-in and a late-60s rock figure, Moore used a thinly-veiled Mick Jagger instead of a thinly-veiled Jimmy Page. Because come on.
Also also, Kevin O’Neill is the fucking bomb. Dude can draw.
44. The Ask, Sam Lipsyte
Expected to like it, but didn’t think much of it at all. My original capsule review.
45. Hammer of the Gods: The Led Zeppelin Saga, Stephen Davis
For some weird reason related to her trashy book club, my wife wound up with a copy of this. I’d read it to tatters in high school, and thought it’d be fun to blast through it again. And it was. It’s pretty hilarious how hard Davis works to make Zeppelin sound like the coolest motherfuckers on the planet, just kind of breathlessly relating every rumor he’s ever heard while slapping the faintest possible veneer of disapproval on when the rowdiness gets a little extreme.
It never got past the early art stages, but I actually had a pretty weird strip planned for Hammer of the Gods, involving the contrasting reputations of Led Zeppelin and R.E.M. Probably best I didn’t finish it.
46. A Game of Thrones, George R. R. Martin
Settling into Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire books was a case of bowing to a ton of pressure that had been building slowly for a long time; I’m glad I finally succumbed to peer pressure. Loved this book. It’s been discussed so widely this year that I don’t really have much to add. Except that I liked the strip that I got from it.
47. Life, Keith Richards
Pretty good, but honestly I enjoyed my subsequent Stones-listening orgy more than I actually enjoyed the book. As far as that goes, I think I like Bill Wyman (not that Bill Wyman)’s response to Life writing in character as Mick Jagger more than I do Life.
My strip for Life really sums up my biggest reaction.
48. A Clash of Kings, George R.R. Martin
49. A Storm of Swords, George R.R. Martin
50. A Feast for Crows, George R.R. Martin
So, yeah. Enjoyed the series (and I do agree with the thesis that AGoT and ASoS are the two best individual books). This is the point at which I realized that I could recognize a bunch of chunks that were kind of Richard III in a different light.
51. Bill Mauldin’s Army, Bill Mauldin
Bill Mauldin’s another of my favorite cartoonists; his slice-of-life depiction of day-to-day life in World War II is pretty much catnip to someone with my set of interests.
52. The Girl from H.O.P.P.E.R.S., Jaime Hernandez
After years of trying to get them, I finally found a Love and Rockets connection that clicked for me (I think I’d previously run into the twin problems of the early books being really rough and Gilbert’s work not really being for me). I honestly think that, if I could have been reading this when it came out (I was in high school), it would have changed my life. Exposure to great comics, an earlier introduction to punk rock, and more than anything else an introduction to the idea that Mexican punks in LA led lives that were very relatable to a small-town Nebraska kid; it would have opened some horizons that really could have used some opening.
53. X-Force: Exit Wounds, Peter Milligan and Mike Allred
One of my favorite things to ever come out of Marvel. Actually, I can’t believe Marvel let them get away with most of that book.
54. Formerly Known as the Justice League, Keith Giffen, JM DeMatteis, Kevin Maguire
I guess this was the stretch of the year when I read beautifully-drawn, subversive superhero books.
55. A Clockwork Orange, Anthony Burgess
Burgess’ achievement in creating a fake slang that sounds real is fucking amazing; this is the sort of thing that most people fail very badly at when they attempt it. And I love the feeling about 10 pages in when you realize that somehow your brain has started parsing all of the Nadsat lingo. Brains are awesome, is what I’m saying.
My Clockwork Orange strip is OK, although it’s kind of a case of low-hanging fruit.
56. A Dance with Dragons, George R.R. Martin
And with that, I join the legion of people waiting for the next one.
57. The Marriage Plot, Jeffrey Eugenides
Liked it a bunch, but, then I always like Eugenides. I feel a little bad that my strip talked about the same thing everyone else was talking bout with this book, but hey: sometimes there’s an elephant standing in the room.
58. Maggie the Mechanic, Jaime Hernandez
Pretty good after you get about halfway in and Jaime’s figured out his craft, but it’s a little dire early on.
59. A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, David Foster Wallace
Dusted off after I finally saw Lynch’s Lost Highway; in trying to figure out what the fuck I’d just seen, I thought it’d be good to reread Wallace’s essay about the movie. The essay, and the rest of the book, remain pretty good.
60. House of Holes, Nicholson Baker
For this one, the strip– which I love– says it all.
61. The Name of the Rose, Umberto Eco
Again, the strip pretty much covers my thoughts. Might be worth mentioning that I liked The Name of the Rose much, much more than Foucalt’s Pendulum.
62. The Leftovers, Tom Perrotta
Very good, even though it was a monumental bummer. I do think that The Leftovers makes the most sense as a direct response to Fred “Slacktivist” Clark’s devastating critique of the Left Behind books, particularly how badly they fumble what a post-Rapture book would be like.
63. The Hound of the Baskervilles, Arthur Conan Doyle
64. The Return of Sherlock Holmes, Arthur Conan Doyle
The Name of the Rose left me in the mood for some Holmes, is what I’m saying.
65. Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell
I liked it, although I did find it a little cold and “look at my formalist cleverness!” in spots. The interesting thing to me is that everyone who likes Cloud Atlas seems to agree that chunks of it drag, but no one can agree which chunks. For my money, the most affecting parts of the book were the two middle science-fiction sections, but really I liked everything except the 70s mystery.
66. Harlot’s Ghost, Norman Mailer
Finishing the year going to back to a favorite old brick. Luckily, I know for a fact it’s better than some of Mailer’s other late work.
see part 1
22. Burr, Gore Vidal
After enjoying Lincoln a ton, I thought I’d check out Vidal’s other best-known historical novel. And I liked Burr as much as I did Lincoln, maybe even more. It’s funny and interesting, and Vidal’s version of Aaron Burr is a great, vibrant, complicated character. The book does a great job of transmuting dry historical facts into stories. It also contains, in its treatment of Thomas Jefferson, one of the all-time great literary hatchet jobs.
23. Battle Cry of Freedom, James MacPherson
So, yeah, at this point of the year, the history bender was in full swing. I’d been meaning to read Battle Cry for a long time, but had never gotten around to it. I was glad to finally sit down and tear into it; the book lives up to its lofty reputation. Long as hell, though, so don’t start unless you’re ready for a lengthy war.
24. The Pale King, David Foster Wallace
I know there was never really any doubt that this would be published, and that Wallace made it fairly clear that he wanted it to be published, and all that, but I’m not 100% sure it was a great idea. The structural incompleteness and lack of polish were pretty jarring. There were moments of brilliance, and you get the feeling this would have gelled into something great if he’d lived to work on it; but as published, honestly, it’s kind of a mess. Enough of a mess for me to worry that, ultimately, it existed mainly to allow the publish one last chance to harvest money from the Wallace diehards (and I say this as a Wallace diehard).
I guess the strip for The Pale King is a relic of me putting a lot of mental resources into evaluating it.
25. The Short Stories, Ernest Hemingway
Great, of course, but over the past year it became increasingly clear to me that, if Hemingway had never existed, people who wanted to write cartoons about literature would have had to invent him.
Which reminds me: I ended up abandoning it because some other parts that weren’t working, but a recent unfinished strip did posit that Hemingway’s Jake Barnes in The Sun Also Rises is one of the fanciest Mary Sues in literature. And I’ll stand by that.
26. The Partly Cloudy Patriot, Sarah Vowell
Read partly because I like Vowell and like the subject matter, and partly because by this point of the year, I was getting increasingly conscious of what a sausage party English Majeure is, and wanted to make an effort to get more women writers represented.And honestly, I don’t think I’ve been super successful at that. I’m working on it. Hey, give a man a break,
27. Patriot Games, Tom Clancy
It’s turned into a running joke that, if I’m flying somewhere, I read a Clancy book on the plane. As jokes go, it’s actually a pretty helpful one. because, honestly, Clancy’s trash, but it’s trash you can get enveloped in pretty deeply for a few hours, enough to help you forget that you’re sitting in a metal tube 6 miles up in the sky. That’s all I’m looking for.
One thing that I’ve noticed, though, during my flights of the past few years: Jack Ryan is a real dick.
28. The Good War, Studs Terkel
History bender resumes. Another well-regarded book lives up to its reputation.
29. Bossypants, Tina Fey
Really funny, although Jesus, that cover picture still haunts my dreams (Rebecca actually likes to connive for me to see it “accidentally” so that she can hear me freak out). I was disappointed that I couldn’t come up with a strip about Bossypants, to help with the aforementioned English Majeure sausage party. But I couldn’t; I’ve actually noticed that it’s really, really hard to come up with jokes about things that are already funny (this was the harsh lesson of Vonnegut Month). The ideal book for an English Majeure inspiration is one that (and I say this with love) is ridiculous but takes itself very seriously. This is part of the reason there are so many Dune, Atlas Shrugged, and Lord of the Rings strips.
30. In the Garden of Beasts, Erik Larson
Like a lot of people, I thought Larson’s The Devil in the White City was phenomenal, but Garden of Beasts only so-so. I think it’s not so much Larson’s fault as that of the people he’s writing about. A more accurate title would be something like Fatuous Americans Stumble Around with Nazis.
31. The Return of Pogo, Walt Kelly
Rebecca found an old Pogo collection at a library sale, and, awesomely, nabbed it for me. And I was stoked! The Fantagraphics Pogo collections are just starting to trickle out; until just now, the only way to read Pogo was in archaeological finds like this. If you have any interest in comics at all, Pogo‘s a must-read. Beautiful and hilarious! Pogo‘s up there on the top level with Peanuts and Calvin & Hobbes for comic-strip radness.
32. Mother Night, Kurt Vonnegut
It’s not his best-known work, but I think Mother Night is Vonnegut’s most profound book.
33. Drinking at the Movies, Julia Wertz
I’m very iffy on autobio comics; as they proliferate, I basically see the comics world embarking on the same journey up its own ass that the world of literary fiction has been on for the past few decades. But when done well, they’re great, and Wertz does them really well. If nothing else, her sense of humor seems really similar to mine, so I’m really primed to laugh at her jokes. And her art has an awesome simplicity that makes me really jealous.
34. Galapagos, Kurt Vonnegut
Read it hoping to get a strip for Vonnegut Month (pro cartooning tip: don’t commit to 4 themed comics unless you have 4 concrete ideas); I guess the one that came out was a little forced. The central conceit of Galapagos– that humans’ large brains are an evolutionary dead end– is something that takes up a lot of space in my head if I’m having a depression jag.
Which is rare, these days, and usually I’m pretty ok with large brains.
35. Hocus Pocus, Kurt Vonnegut
Didn’t get a strip out of it, but Hocus Pocus remains one of my favorite Vonnegut books.
36. Cat’s Cradle, Kurt Vonnegut
Really, the Vonnegut month thing was a bad idea. Tough to get jokes out of books that are really jokey on their own. It’s not a bad thing to reread a bunch of Vonnegut, but it’s a very bad thing to spend a month thinking “oh, shit, what’s the next strip?”
37. The Dark Knight Returns, Frank Miller
It’s great, of course, but let’s just say that I think that a lot of Miller’s recent weird statements are kind of lurking between the lines in all of his work, eve the good stuff.
38. Ex Machina: The First Hundred Days, Brian K. Vaughn and Tony Harris
It’s good, but I literally had forgotten that I read this this year until just now.
39. Sweet Tooth: Out of the Forest, Jeff Lemire
One of those books where I recognized the quality, but had trouble really sticking with it because of the bleakness. I’ve noticed that postapocalyptic, society-has-collapsed stuff really bothers me lately. I think it’s because I actually half expect society to collapse, and don’t really like having my face rubbed in it.
I think it all comes down to my having seen The Road Warrior at too young an age.
40. Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov
It’s a landmark book, it lives up to its reputation, and Nabokov pulls off the amazing feat of creating such great prose that you wind up rooting for a monster to do something terrible. But nobody really talks about what a bummer Lolita is. Can we just stop and acknowledge that for a second? Lolita’s a classic, but it’s a real fucking bummer.
I’m pretty proud of my Lolita strip, though.
41. Supergods, Grant Morrison
Man, I love Grant Morrison’s work. I wish I had that kind of optimism and fevered imagination. Morrison seems to be channeling transmissions from the same freaky universe that the Flaming Lips are tapping, and that Jack Kirby used to see into. If I get squicky about dystopian futures, Morrison’s optimistic vision is a good antidote.
I’m not going to argue that Supergods is the tightest, most focused book in history, or that it’s an authoritative history of comics, but it’s a comforting thing to plug into your head.
Part 3 coming soon!
As the year winds down, I thought it’d be fun to look back at all the stuff I read this past year. And talk about it! Sometimes, at least. Talk about it if I have something to say.
1. And Here’s The Kicker! edited by Mike Sacks
One of my favorite books of the past few years; each chapter is an interview between Sacks and some figure of comedy, talking about the nuts and bolts of being funny. Similar to Marc Maron’s WTF podcast, really, but in text form.
2. Inherent Vice, Thomas Pynchon
I’ve taken several stabs at Gravity’s Rainbow and beeb defeated every time. So it was gratifying to find Inherent Vice such an easy read. It’s not the deepest thing in the world, but it’s fun- following a perpetually stoned private detective around Los Angeles, the book really reminded me of Big Lebowski fan fiction. And even if I’m just making that up, it’s a truth I’m going to cling to, because I love the idea that at this point Pynchon’s just sitting around writing about the Dude.
3. Route 19 Revisited: The Clash and London Calling, Marcus Gray
My wife saw this at the library and grabbed it for me, thinking I’d like it. And at first, I was really apprehensive about reading it; partly because I’ve really come to distrust a lot of music writing (it’s way, way too common for music writing to wind up being all about the writer), and partly because reading Hunter Thompson’s biography made me skittish about learning more about people I admire.
But I wore down and gave Route 19 a shot, and I’m damn glad I did. Not only did it wind up being the best piece of music writing I’ve come across in a while; I think this book actually wound up taking up more space in my head than anything else I read this year (especially if you factor in the orgy of London Calling-listening and general Clash superfandom that it kicked off).
Gray basically leaves no stone unturned in giving you the complete story on London Calling. In order to have the proper background for the abum, you get individual biographies of the band members, and then a history of the band. And then a detailed description of the songwriting and recording process of the album (occasionally too detailed; the only stuff I skipped in this book were Gray’s sections on which mikes the Clash were using). And then an awesome, exhaustive song-by-song analysis of the music and lyrics of each track on the album. And then chapters on the release and reception, and what happened to the Clash afterwards.
There was a lot too it, but Gray puts it together so well that it’s almost always a joy to read. And totally fascinating! I’d always liked London Calling before, but after going through Route 19, I was really appreciative of all sorts of layers, both musical and lyrical, that I’d totally issed before.
4. Superheroes, Strip Artists, & Talking Animals: Minnesota’s Contemporary Cartoonists, Britt Aamodt
I’m human enough that I basically read the subtitle of this book as Fuck You, Keith Pille. Which is ridiculous, but hey, I contain multitudes, and a bunch of those multitudes are pretty ridiculous.
5. Wake Up, Sir!, Jonathan Ames
An alcoholic writer and his imaginary butler invade a writer’s retreat in kind of a weird travesty of Wodehouse. I enjoyed this– Ames is a funny guy, and the conceit’s a good one– but it did suffer from a moment about 3/4 the way through when, seeing that the book was nearly over and the scope wasn’t going to be getting any bigger, I started feeling a letdown on the lines of “that’s all that was st stake?”
Still, worth checking out.
6. Essential X-Men, Volume 1, Chris Claremont and Dave Cockrum
7. Essential X-Men, Volume 2, Chris Claremont and John Byrne
I’m definitely drifting away from superhero comics, but it’s still fun to go back and read the classics from time to time. The thing that really struck me this time through was the really high level of Byrne’s contribution. The book really gets better when he jumps onboard. His art’s so much snappier than Cockrum’s, and his writing tics balance Claremont’s really nicely.
If you’re not down with the Proletarian, I think you and I have a problem.
8. Batman Vs. Robin, Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely
9. Milk It! Collected Musings on the Alternative Music Explosion of the 90s, Jim DeRogatis
There was a time when I thought this was a great book, but I guess my sensibility has drifted. I guess here’s what it comes down to: this book asks you to consider Urge Overkill and Courtney Love as decade-defining artists with a lot to say. If that’s an argument you think is worthwhile, this is the book for you.
10. Kill Shakespeare, Conor McCreery, Anthony Del Col and Andy Belanger
This isn’t something I’d normally say, but McCreery, Del Col, and Belanger should be smeared with ground beef and tossed into a shark tank for producing this sad chunk of shit.
Let me put it this way: working on English Majeure, I’m painfully, painfully aware of the risk I’m running of doing a strip that really just showcases how much I missed the point of something. Kill Shakespeare was a harrowing read, because it felt like a giant gallery of Things From Shakespeare They Missed The Point Of. I actually felt embarrassed for McCreery, Del Col, and Belanger, and that’s not a way I like to feel.
11. Macbeth, William Shakespeare
Yeah, I went back to the source to clean the taste of shit out of my mouth. And Macbeth is good stuff.
It does hit me as funny how cliched the back half of Macbeth would come off now, with two separate instances of characters pulling the old “here’s a loophole in the prophecy that you think is protecting you” trick. I’m not sure if this is a case of Shakespeare being cut a break because he’s Shakespeare, or, more likely, something that was fresh at the time but has become cliched in the 400 years since the play was written.
Either way, it doesn’t matter. it’s still a great fucking play.
12. Essential X-Men, Vol. 3, Chris Claremont and Dave Cockrum
Cockrum comes back and the quality slips a little, but it’s still good X-stuff. A showdown between Magneto and Ronald Reagan? That shit’s gold.
13. My Year of Flops, Nathan Rabin
Rabin’s my favorite writer at the AV Club, and I’ve loved his My Year of Flops feature from the get-go. The book collection is good, and includes some writeups that aren’t on the AV Club’s site; but it suffered a little bit from the fact that I’d already read most of the pieces before, and from the fact that a book can’t include Youtube clips to demonstrate points.
14. The Pregnant Widow, Martin Amis
If I remember right, this story of a bunch of horny 20somethings hanging out in an Italian villa in the 70s is supposed to be partly autobiographical. Whether or not that’s true, I thought this was Amis’ most enjoyable book in a long time. It’s not as biting as London Fields or Money (although the narrator’s still a very funny bastard), but it feels a little more human.
15. Essential X-Men, Vol. 4, Chris Claremont and Paul Smith
I never liked Paul Smith’s art until I learned to draw; then I abruptly started loving it. So this is a fun collection. At this point, Claremont’s really starting to repeat himself and develop some annoying tics, but they’re not fatal yet (especially with the crisp Smith artwork popping all over the place). For my money, Vol. 4 is the last of the Essential X-Men collections to be worth reading.
16. Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand
And here we get to the part of the year when I was getting ready to do English Majeure. Actually, my original idea was to do an ongoing strip satirizing Atlas Shrugged from the point of view of Francisco d’Anconia’s college roommate, pointing out what horrible dicks these people would be if you actually had to deal with them. So I reread this horrible fucking book for research (and I think this was my 4th or 5th go through it… for whatever reason, Atlas Shrugged is like a very irritating piece of sand stuck in the oyster of my mind).
As I developed the script for the ongoing strip, it became really obvious that it wasn’t a good-enough idea to maintain. But I thought I could get a few jokes out of it still. And thus English Majeure was born. Actually, a bunch of the early strips are me using up ideas that were originally intended for bigger projects, but weren’t really substantial enough to carry them.
And as for Atlas Shrugged as a book: I just don’t think Rand thought anything through very hard, nor is she really arguing in good faith (note how melodramatically eeeevil her bad guys are), nor does she know a damn thing about human nature. People who think this is a serious book with serious ideas baffle me.
17. Rework, Jason Fried, David Hansson
Meh. Short book about what a great place 37 Signals is to work.
18. Lincoln, Gore Vidal
Holy shit, did I love this book. Loved the portrayal of politics. Loved the background of the civil war. Loved Vidal’s version of Lincoln, who comes across as funny and tragic and heroic at the same time. I’d been hit or miss on Gore Vidal before this (especially since the time I got Duluth from the library thinking it’d be about Duluth, Minnesota), but Lincoln was one of my favorite books of the year.
And I got a strip out of it!
19. What’s Not to Love, Jonathan Ames
Read this after enjoying Wake Up, Sir so much. Sadly, the hot streak didn’t continue. While Wake Up, Sir was a novel, What’s Not to Love is a collection of Ames’ columns, generally about sex but often really about the pain of being Jonathan Ames. Individual columns are funny- Ames does have really great, witty prose- but the levels of self-involvement re toxic. My reaction after reading this (and I spent months trying to figure out a good way to make this into an English Majeure strip) was that Ames is at great risk of crawling up his own asshole and dying, but that he’d probably get a lot of kinky fun out of doing so.
20. New X-Men, Grant Morrison, Frank Quitely, et al
Did another run through Morrison’s run on X-Men, which is somewhere between comics done right and a beautiful mess. There are a lot of missteps, and some heinous fucking art in spots (I think Igor Kordey basically killed his career with the issues he drew), but this is still a stretch of comics that I love very much. Morrison’s great with characters and big metaphors, and those are pretty rich veins in the X-Men franchise.
21. When the Killing’s Done, T.C. Boyle
In between masterpieces, Boyle just churns out very good novels like clockwork. When the Killing’s Done is more in the latter mode, but hey, that does mean that it’s very good. A bunch of broken people project their problems onto an environmental dispute on some islands off of California. It’s no Drop City or Road to Wellville, but When the Killing’s Done is worth checking out.
That’s it for part 1. Part 2 to come soon!
Been a bit of a delay since this strip went up, sorry about that. Most of that’s because I’ve started a new job and that’s kind of eaten up my mind….
But also, I just snuck in an update to my previous strip, Nowhere Band. If you haven’t read it, it’s about life in The Awesome Boys, one of the thousands of bands that, well, go nowhere. I left the strip drifting to start English Majeure; the update I just put up shows a couple of the guys after they’ve gotten a few years older. Go check it out!
Regular English Majeuring will now resume.