Top Shelf #6, edited by Brett Warnock

While in DC over Easter weekend, I dropped by the tres cool Big Planet Comics, known locally as 'Bethesda's Sole Redeeming Feature.'* Also there that afternoon was The Unstoppable Chris Oarr, who had humbly labored there prior to his apotheosis. Before I was able to blink three times, the new CBLDF director had told me about half a dozen of his favorite new books, told me another half-dozen ideas he has for the next SPX, and sold me a copy of Top Shelf #6. SEGUE!!

Edited Lichenstein, maybe? Apparently they're too hip for a masthead. Might also be Brett Warnock
Published by Top Shelf, of course
I'm not gonna list all the contributors. Waddayawant I get carpal tunnel or something?
Price is $6.95.
They don't number the pages, and I'm not gonna count, but I'd guess around 60

I'm not normally a big anthology person. I've never read an anthology where I liked everything, so I generally try to spend my meagre pennies on something I'm more likely to enjoy cover-to-cover. This book was no exception to that rule, and had plenty that was dull, opaque, or both. OTOH, if you're someone who likes being onto the 'next big thing' to come up from minis, this looks like a damn good cheat. The Top Shelf folx have waded through the mire of Kinko's Press for us. Impressively, everything here displays, at least, an attention to detail and a distinctive vision.

More specifically: The design is gorgeous. The slightly unconventional broad and short proportions, square binding, funky Matt Madden 2-color cover design, and matte paper stock make the book a pleasure to hold and look at. Interior design (contents, contributor bios, etc.) is also striking, without sacrificing clarity or readibility (mostly. I could do without that white-on-red printing).

The first story that really caught my attention is Marc Bell's 'My Glasses.' I'd seen his book, 'Mojo Action Companion Unit,' before on the shelves, but the Lynda Barry/Julie Doucet-style art hadn't really attracted me much. His writing, though, if you can make it through his lettering, is peachy keen. His skewed, faintly archaic polyglot syntax delivers a story of down-and-out hardship with whimsy and (almost) unsinkable good humor. I'll definitely be checking out more of his work.

Then comes a few bits that didn't do much for me, including an embarassingly bad Gen-X essay. Sample quote: "I think Sigmund [the seamonster] had a bit of a Cinderella complex."

Then we get to Mister Snowboy by Warren Craghead. I love this piece, and will discuss it further later.

Jenny Zervakas's (Strange Growths) sketchy art looks strikingly out-of-place printed so impeccably.

Pete Sickman-Garner's (Hey Mister) Clowes-influenced art keeps on getting better, and his humor remains pleasingly tasteless and nihilistic. Every once in a while, he will seem to experience a flicker of an impulse to give one of his characters some depth. Fear not: he ruthlessly supresses it.

In general, the editorial aesthetic seems to favor the extremely understated -- aggresively mundane stories of routine human interaction and micro-epiphany. There are some definite counterexamples, such as the juicily Kirbyesque Fort Thunder AdverBattle, but this generation of artists seems to generally owe far more to Harvey Pekar (for example) than Robert Crumb.

* Okay, the Tastee Diner's pretty cool, too.

[/reviews/] comment

Speedy, by Warren Craghead I was saying, I liked his Mister Snowboy in Top Shelf #6 enough that I went out and bought

Written and drawn by Warren Craghead
Crap-head Press
16 8½ x 6 pp, 16 6 x 4 pp, 12 2 x 3 pp, and a 2 x 3 sticker

Summary: Main Comic: "awake aches, starts smarts." A leaf describes, in verse, its joy in being part of a tree. The following day it has fallen, and expresses its agony thereat. Images of sundering and autumn. Inset: "dont. never ever. L L Listen." A sweatsock finds itself abandoned in a suburban yard. It describes its confusion and lonliness. A fallen leaf is blown near, and they compare their experiences. Then they debate whether conciliation is possible once solitude has been experienced. They are blown apart. The sock, again alone, compares his situation to that of the tract housing around him. Li'l mini: "down. down, d d dow d down." Narration on disconnection, sinking and falling, with drawings of suburban back yards.

Gripping storytelling, we see, is not the Craghead stock in trade. Really, it's a cheap trick for me to do a plot summary of a book like Speedy, but I wanted to emphasize how enormously different this work is from the vast majority of even 'alternative' comics. What is he trying to accomplish, then? Poetry.



Antecedants: Probably the best test of how you'll like Craghead's work is your response to Chris Ware. Thoubh Craghead lacks Ware's breathtaking design skills, they share an interest in breaking the page into intricately divided panels, often using apparent visual non-sequitors to create a mood. However, though that mood is one of alienation and loss in both cases, the emotions in Speedy are intimate and unguarded, as distinct from Ware's quality of sour distance.

The look of the pages is also reminiscent of Ghost Ship-era Jon Lewis, in the disciplined use of limited drafting skills and in the intricate webs of tiny word balloons to express their protaganists' tangled thoughts.

The dense rhyming and the use of a small, heavily repeated vocabulary to create a mood of claustrophobia and despair stakes out a strange territory between Samuel Beckett and Dr, Seuss. Um...I suppose I should add that I mean that in a good way.

Overall: the irony of Speedy is this: The book's thematic concern is alienation and the loss of intimacy. However, attempting to follow the books swirling chains of word balloons can be involving and invigorating, an effect not unlike that of an e.e. cummings poem. The enclosed micro-minicomic, with fold-out pages and what appear to be individually crayon-colored covers, also involves the reader, and encourages him (or her) to envision the creator assembling it, producing a sense of intimacy with him. Whether the pleasure I took in this tension is what Craghead intendid, I have no idea, but it was a potent demonstration for me of the still mostly latent potential range of the comics medium

[/reviews/] comment

The Big U, by Neal Stephenson

In the late 1980s, I was in High School. A friend of mine named Matt Lawsky, browsing through the remainder bin at a local bookstore, found a strange-looking paperback he'd never heard of. He bought it and took it home to read. Shortly thereafter, he pressed his new favorite book on me, insisting that I have a look at it.

It might be overstatement to say that The Big U changed my life, but it certainly helped gel my already-forming perspective. The Big U careens between soap-opera, adventure novel, venomous satire, and pure silliness--often in the course of a couple pages. Though the book is of average length, it feels like a big novel due to the accumulation of characters, groups, and events. It is never less than entertaining, and often hilarious and moving--sometimes at once.

The first half of the book is a sharp and nasty description of a large college called American Megaversity. Though we get some looks at classes and faculty members, the real concern is the students and the groups they belong to. Important groups include the Megaversity Association for Reenactments and Simulations (MARS), which is the gaming club, later renamed the Grand Army of Shekondhar the Fearsome. The student left is represented by the Stalinist Underground Battalion (SUB), and the student religious right is the Temple of Unlimited Godhead (TUG), an "outlaw breakaway Mormon sect." As with all subsequent Stephenson novels, characters recieve ludicrous Dickensian names: the geeky protaganist is Casmir Radon; the hallucinogen-addled Stalinist leader is Dex Fresser; the president of the school is Septimus Severius Krupp. Other names, though as jokey, are a little subtler. the uberhacker with godlike powers over the school mainframe and master-key access to every building on campus is named Virgil Gabrielson.

Interestingly, the drunken and violent yahoos who are the primary cause of suffering for some of the main characters are identified neither with the fraternities or the sports teams, but are simply their own group, initially the Wild and Crazy Guys, and later, the Terrorists. Their female counterparts, the Airheads, over the course of the first half of the book take up wearing ski masks to informal public gatherings (like cafeteria meals) since it saves them so much time applying makeup.

Though this is all mostly played for laughs, a few scenes of grief and violence (including a horrifying attempted rape) emphasize that the environment is no joke for some of the students trying to live in it.

In the second half, faculty and maintenance workers go on strike, and a number of the students revert to bicamerality.

What am I talking about? In brief: In The Origin of Conciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, author Julian Jaynes asserts that until about 3000 years ago, people weren't concious in the way that we are, but instead were something like schitzophrenic robots who heard divine voices speaking to them from the right hemispheres of their brains. Some characters in The Big U use their conciousnesses little enough that they begin to revert to this state, and begin hearing voices coming out advertising billboards and washing machines. You'll find other ideas cribbed from Jaynes in Snow Crash. A good summary of Jaynes in the context of The Big U can be found here.

I can't particularly reccommend Bicameral, by the way, except to conniseurs of kooklit. Though immensely clever, his evidence mostly comes from idiosyncratic interpertation of fine points of the wording in the Old Testament and the Illiad. While the observation that people seem to have talked to the gods a lot more frequently back then is prety reasonable, Jaynes generally comes across as someone so in love with the hammer he built that he can't resist declaring everything he sees a nail.

Where was I? Oh, soon, civilization utterly collapses when the maintenance workers (Crotobaltslavonian refugees) sieze comtrol of the nuclear waste disposal site beneath the school. This breakdown percipitates, and Stephenson lovingly describes the process with his characteristic gusto for any scene of mass mayhem. The semester progresses from the live-ammo foodfight in the cafeteria (sample quote: "Unfortunately a stray weapons burst had struck a pressure vat by the exit. The top of the vat exploded off, blasting a neat hole throught the ceiling, and the vat, torn loose by the recoil, tumbled over and spilled thousands of gallons of Cheezy Surprise Tetrazzini onto the floor.") to the complex territorial divisions as several armed gangs stake out different areas of strategic value.

Did I mention the giant mutant sewer rats? There are giant mutant sewer rats.

Eventually the protaganists manage to effect a mass evacuation, end the Crotobaltslavonian nuclear threat, and bring the story to a satisfying conclusion. I shall close my summary with words from the book's introduction: "What you are about to read is not an abberration: it can happen in your local university too. The Big U, simply, was a few years ahead of the rest."


Okay, okay I admit it. Some of my affection for The Big U derives from the way I first read it Matt and I watched the growing Cult of Stephenson with a little dismay, as the pioneers of any wildeness are saddened as their forests becomes farms and then bedroom communities.

Now comes the bad news: this book is incredibly rare. Copies online go for $200 to $500. Rumors have circulated that Stephenson had been suppressing the book, but sources close to him deny this. I'm not sure who has the rights to the damn thing now, so I'm not sure who you should be bugging to reprint it. If Stephenson holds the rights, perhaps we can persuade him to make it freely available. Anyone know his e-mail address?


There are numerous bad people in The Big U; the Terrorists are cruel, stupid, and violent; the trustees are selfish and hypocritical; the Crotobaltslavonians are ruthless killers. The villain of the story, however, is arguably the building itself. American Megaversity is one enormous cinderblock-and-florescent-tube structure, called the Plexus--a portmanteau, presumably, of complex and campus. "The Plex's environmental control system was designed so that anyone could spend four years there wearing only a jockstrap and a pair of welding goggles and yet never feel chilly or find the place too dimly lit." Eight identical dormitory towers loom over the main structure. The building is therefore uniform and impersonal in style throughout, with no real privacy or comfort. This anonymity and affectlessness of dormitory life under these conditions, Stephenson suggests, are deeply dehumanizing and promote irresponsibility. He makes it clear, though that the madness does not end at the walls of the American Megaversity, taking swipes along the way at the news media and AM's board of trustees.


The role of geeks in all this is interesting. The story's sort-of-protagonist, Casmir Radon, is a resumed-ed physics student in his 30s, with no social skills. He's an anomaly at American Megaversity, since he's there hoping to learn things by attending classes, an agenda alien to the partiers, zealots, time-markers and wheeler-dealers who make up the bulk of the school's population.

Fred Fine, the head of MARS, has a flimsy grasp on reality (brought on, Stephenson fashionably hints, by too much life-action D&D), but, interestingly, is exceptionally suited to the post-collapse plex, and his Grand Army of Shekondar the Fearsome becomes a major power, primarily due to their posession of the All-Purpose Plex Armed Strife Mobile Unit (APPASMU), a tank designed for dormitory hallways, a project originally built as a joke.

One subplot concerns the battles of Virgil Gabrielson with the Worm, a malicious program written by the previous maintaner of the school mainframe, which Gabrielson describes at one point as "probably the greatest intellectual achievement of the ninteen-eighties."

After civilization has collapsed, down in the science departments, "research and classes continued obliviously. Most of the [math/science] folks regarded the whole war/riot as a challenge to their ingenuity."

The computer use in The Big U is a glimpse into the twilight of the Mainframe Age. Some students write their papers on PCs, but all hacking is centered on the Janus 64 mainframe, with its custom OS, the Operator, mastery of which gives Virgil Gabrielson demiurgic power in the school's little universe.

In general, Stephenson mocks the nerds of American Megaversity quite sharply, particularly the members of MARS, but he also presents their isolation from reality as a psychological and practical survival skill when reality is an inhospitable place.

Discussion Questions:

  1. What are Stephenson's views on relativism? How does his assesment of its results compare with that in The Diamond Age?
  2. Compare and contrast AM President S.S. Krupp with Uncle Enzo in Snow Crash.
  3. What American college is AM a parody of?
  4. Does Ephram Klein's carefully-plotted murder of his ex-roommate make him a less sympathetic character? Does his vindication on the issue of bicamerality indicate that he is also correct on the role of the building in the breakdown of Plex civilization?
  5. Were the giant rats really necessary? I mean, really?
  6. Which character(s) are autobiographical?

[/reviews/] 5 comments

Five Novels, by Daniel Pinkwater


Let's say you're in high school. Worse yet, let's say you're in junior high school. The other kids mostly ignore you, and occasionally pick on you. The teachers are about the same. The schoolwork is tedious, and Gym is a nightmare. There seems to have been some sort of terrible mixup; you're the only human in a school full of Martians, or perhaps the other way around.

But you have a secret--a message in a bottle, a communique from your fellow aliens outside your prison. There's hope--there are others; weirdos like you. You've discovered the novels of Daniel Pinkwater.


Pinkwater's a prolific writer and occasional illustrator, and has cranked out dozens of children's books, a couple dozen Young Adult novels, numerous books-on-tape, a couple essay collections, a dog-training guide, an adult novel, and at least one comic strip collection in the last 30 years. 5 Novels is a collection of his work from the early '80s. How they were picked I have no idea. The works in question are: Alan Mendelsohn, the Boy from Mars; Slaves of Spiegel; The Snarkout Boys and the Avocado of Death; The Last Guru; and Young Adult Novel. There's not much to say about the collection itself: it's a decently bound trade paperback. The foreword by Jules Feiffer is charming, but not particularly insightful, and not quite two pages long. The variation in fonts among the books suggests that very little alteration was done from the original printings before sending the collection to press.

The books are aimed at teenagers, but that's certainly not their only audience. I read Young Adult Novel to a group of 20 30-ish Boston geeks earlier this month, and they loved it and clamored for more. If the portrait at the beginning of this piece is familiar from any point in your life, I think you'll get something out of Pinkwater now.


The most evident thing about Pinkwater's writing is the goofy sense of humor, as one can guess from a glance at the titles. Much of his humor derives from a childlike delight in inherently absurd objects, such as avocados. Bizzarre place names or background characters, like the town of Hogboro or the McTavish's Pickleburgers fast food chain often will reoccur from book to book. The Hoboken Chicken Emergencyclopedia is an attempt by a fan to to catalogue these references, along with everything else mentioned in Pinkwater's book.

Another source of humor is absurd justapositions of the fantastic and mundane, such as the marauding space pirates who invariably wear plaid sportscoats and white plastic shoes. A third vein is the puncturing of authority.

Adults in Pinkwater's world are--at best--pretentious buffoons. In Alan Mendelsohn, for example, first the occult bookseller Samuel Klugarsh, then the Venusian motorcyclist Clarence Yojimbo, and then the astral traveller Lance Hergeschleimer are first admired by the story's heroes, but soon prove less clever, honest, and resourceful than themselves. Teachers are overbearing petty tyrants, bored clock-punchers, or raving lunatics. Parents pursue their own petty obsessions in blithe ignorance of their children's lives. They appear in these books as inert and mostly useless creatures, like enormous ambulatory vegetables endowed with the authority to set bedtimes, but lacking the wit to effectively enforce them.

The ideal Pinkwater novel would go like this: short, fat kid of above-average but not exceptional intelligence is lonely, picked-on, and bored at high school. He makes friends with a somewhat more flamboyant and self-confident peer, and together they have adventures that discover a more strange, beautiful and exciting world than had previously been revealed to them. This is a composite picture, and most of his books don't have all those exact elements, but these are recurring themes.

Girls are generally conspicuously absent from this picture, with Rat, the James Dean-obsessed punk rocker of the Snarkout books (who our heroes find immensely intimidating) a notable exception. The important relationships are male friendships.

Dangers in Pinkwater's world come from the familiar, not the strange. Characters may be beaten-up or humiliated by their classmates, but the threats of the outside world are always mild by comparison. The master criminal in The Snarkout Boys and the Avocado of Death immerses his enemies in vats of warm egg fu yung or forces them to watch old German comedy reels. The interdimensional tyrants Mannie, Moe, and Jack in Alan Mendelsohn, the Boy from Mars administer kicks in the tush to those who oppose them. The teenage protaganists prowl the streets of the city's seedier districts late at night sometimes with a little nervousness, but never any real sense of danger.

Virtually all Pinkwater characters have their distinctive obsessions, which they carry to the point of mania: collecting comic books, building model ships, making home movies, macrobiotic cooking, fleegix appreciation (fleegix is kinda like hot chocolate, and immensely popular on the planet of Waka-Waka), or snarking out (sneaking out to attend the midnight double bill at the Snark theater).

Place is very important to Pinkwater, and his Chicago upbringing suffuses the way he writes about it. Just as his characters are in conflict with the blowdried, athletic and suntanned culture around them, so they seek out landscapes that offer escape from the strip mall and housing development architecture that reflects that culture. They find them in the older, grittier city of brick buildings and narrow, twisting streets that lies beneath and surrounded by the shinier metropolis that sprung up around it. In Alan Mendelsohn, the Boy from Mars, the narrator, Leonard Neeble, describes a return to his old neighborhood in Hogboro after having moved out to the suburb of West Kangaroo Park.

We stopped and looked in the window of the fish store. All the fish were lying dead on the crushed ice, except some crabs who were feebly waving their claws around. It smelled good. It was a good fish store. Everything was fresh. There was seaweed packed between some of the fish. People in West Kangaroo Park must think that fish came out of the sea frozen and packed in little square boxes.

The stories can be read as fables about the liberating power of fantasy. The characters excape from a world of deadening tedium and threat into one of excitement where they are included and admired, which eventually allows them to cope better with the mundane world

I wouldn't go too far with that, though. Pinkwater shows a laudable aversion for anything smacking of preachiness or "relevance." Here's the raciest passage from the book: "Rat was pretty outspoken. She had a lot of things to say about James Dean and the things she would have been willing to do with him and with no one else, if only he had not died. Winston and I got the impression that Rat knew a lot more about sex than we did, so we kept off the subject in order not to appear ignorant."

The Books

Alan Mendelsohn, the Boy from Mars

An excellent introduction to Pinkwater's work. Leonard Neeble's parents move from their city apartment to a ranch house in the suburbs, and Neeble finds himself at Bat Masterson Jurnior High School, where "'all you have to do is not look like everybody else, and you're instant garbage.'" He falls in with Alan Mendelsohn, an abrasive and geeky boy from the Bronx, with the odd habit of telling random people that he's actually a Martian. After a visit to an occult bookstore, they learn the secrets of mind control, but after a day of giving teachers uncontrollable cigarette joneses and making classmates trip over their own feet, they soon get bored and move on to interdimensional travel. The inhabitants of the first other dimension they visit turn out to be superstitious and cowardly, and Leonard and Alan able to rescue them from the dominion of the dread bandits Manny, Moe, and Jack (why this isn't trademark infringement, I have no idea).

Slaves of Spiegel

A short epistolary novel, featuring the dread Speigellian space pirates of Fat Men from Space, who roam the galaxy in search of junkfood. This book depends entirely on humor, with no memorable characters or emotional weight, and seems aimed at rather younger readers than the other four. Not actually painful to read, but not recommended.

The Snarkout Boys and the Avocado of Death

Walter Gant and Winston Bongo spend their nights sneaking out of their houses to go to the Snark theater double-bill, in an attempt to escape the crushing tedium of Genghis Kahn High School, keeping scrupulous tally of successful Snarkouts, both joint and solo. One night they meet Bentley Saunders Harrison Matthews ("You can call me Rat."), a student at nearby George Armstrong Custer High School who has also independently invented the sport, and are drawn into the mystery of her kidnapped uncle, the mad scientist Flipping Hades Terwilliger, who appears to have been kidnapped by the archcriminal Wallace Nussbaum. Sherlock Holmes fans will enjoy the large number of Holmes references. Funny and evocative.

The Last Guru

Another fairly weak one. Harold Platz, a 13-year-old boy, becomes, through a series of improbable stock market investments, one of the richest people in the world, and is discovered to be the reincarnated founder ot the Silly Hat Sect, which appears to be loosely based on Tibetan Buddhism. The primary purpose of the book seems to make fun of the American New Age movement, which was still a fish in a barrel last time I checked.

Young Adult Novel

The Wild Dada Ducks--Charlie the Cat, Captain Colossal, Igor, the Indiana Zephyr, and the Honorable Venustiano Carranza (President of Mexico)--are a group of students who attempt to resurrect the Dada art movement at Himmler High school. Young Adult Novel has a very different feel to it than Pinkwater's other High School novels. There are no elements of fantasy or science fiction--the story takes place entirely on or near the Himmler campus. Rather than trying to escape the High School experience, the Wild Dada Ducks attempt to transform it through will and creativity. Their success in doing so, but the endeavor is one of the funniest damn things I've ever read.

Final Notes

Avocado of Death has a sequel: The Snarkout Boys and the Baconburg Horror, which is very good. Pinkwater denies rumors of a third volume, I Snarked with a Zombie.

Young Adult Novel had a sequel called Dead End Dada. The two were also published together, along with an excerpt from the proposed third volume, The Dada Boys in Collich, under the title Young Adults. Both books are extremely out of print. Any leads on obtaining them would be vastly appreciated.

Pinkwater has a semi-official web site, and is a remarkably prompt correspondent.

As a small child, I was often read The Blue Moose by my parents. Many years later, I realized that it was also by Pinkwater. I recommend it highly. Also recommended is Lizard Music.

Study Questions:

  1. Is Osgood Sigerson actually Walter Galt's father?
  2. Would it be appropriate to call Pinkwater's books "subversive?" Why or why not?
  3. Discuss the role of food in Pinkwater's books. Special emphasis may be payed to the roles of raisin toast and kosher salami. In what light is vegetarianism presented?
  4. Discuss the role of Judaism in Pinkwater's books.
  5. Authenticity is often a concern of Pinkwater's characters, as in the fish store scene quoted above. What constitutes authenticity for them?
  6. Compare and contrast Pinkwater's approach to humor with that of Woody Allen, Douglas Adams, and Stanislaw Lem.

[/reviews/] comment

RSS feed Atom feed public key contact me Valid XHTML about this site blosxom powered Dreamhost hosted Firefox tested CC Licensed What? Huh?