Back in 2010, It Books published Mary-Lou Weisman's biography of MAD Magazine icon Al Jaffee: Al Jaffee's Mad Life: A Biography; I missed it then but happened upon Arie Kaplan's 2011 writeup in The Jewish Review of Books this morning and was charmed by the biographical sketch it lays out.
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Bill Griffith is one of the great cartoonists and storytellers. I've been a fan for decades, both of his absurdist "Zippy the Pinhead" syndicated comic as well as his one-page comics of cultural criticism, "Griffith Observatory." His latest book is Nobody's Fool: The Life and Times of Schlitzie the Pinhead, a 250-page hardbound comic biography of "Schlitzie the Pinhead" (1901-1971), who served as the inspiration for Griffith's fictional Zippy.
Schlitzie, who had microcephaly and was sold by his parents to a traveling sideshow when he was eight years old, is best known for his role in the 1932 movie, Freaks, directed by Tod Browning, which starred real-life "freak show" circus performers. The disabilities of the performers were too shocking for audiences and the movie was banned in many places. I saw Freaks in high school (around the same time I was reading Very Special People) and was utterly fascinated by Johnny Eck, who didn't have a lower body but could run very fast using his arms, and Prince Randian ("The Human Torso") who had no arms or legs but could use his mouth to roll cigarettes and to shave with a straight razor. Griffith spends a good portion of the biography on the making of Freaks, and Schlitzie's life during that time.
Griffith exhaustively researched Nobody's Fool, interviewing Ward Hall, his sideshow manager, Wolf Krakowski, a musician who worked in a circus with Schlitzie in 1965 , and others who knew Schlitzie. Griffith includes his own story of watching Freaks for the first time in 1963 as an art student and being deeply affected by the movie and its stars, especially Schlitzie. Read the rest
Some Boing Boing readers may know Edward Gorey without knowing it. The author and illustrator of a 100 (or so) ironic-gothic, darkly droll little picture books with titles like The Beastly Baby, The Deranged Cousins, and The Loathsome Couple, Gorey was the inspiration for YA novels such as Lemony Snicket’s Series of Unfortunate Events books and Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs. Guillermo Del Toro’s Crimson Peak, Neil Gaiman’s Coraline, and Tim Burton’s Nightmare Before Christmas owe him a creative debt, too. Gorey, who died at the age of 75 in 2000, wrote mock-morality tales and nonsense verse, typically set in Victorian or Edwardian England and dealing, inevitably, with murder, mayhem, and Acts of God, all recounted in a deadpan that never cracks though it manages, even so, to insinuate a kind of camp-macabre subtext into events. More often than not, tots get the axe, as in his most famous work, The Gashlycrumb Tinies, an abecedarium that recounts the deaths of 26 little dears in rhyming couplets (“B is for Basil/ assaulted by bears...”) His texts are accompanied by pen-and-ink illustrations so intricately crosshatched and stippled they fool the eye into thinking they’re antique engravings, perhaps by the nineteenth-century printmaker Gustave Doré or John Tenniel, illustrator of Lewis Carroll’s Alice books.
A polymath who taught himself to read at age three and left a personal library of some 20,000 volumes when he died, Gorey was a man of ungovernable intellectual passions, hardly missing a performance, over three decades, by George Balanchine’s New York City Ballet and taking in a thousand films in one notable year of wall-to-wall moviegoing. Read the rest
People with a Wikipedia article about them usually resign themselves to living with an error-ridden, lopsided version of their life and work as a top search result. Artist Adrian Piper took matters into her own hands after numerous attempts to get hers corrected, rebuilding hers on her own site. Read the rest
The New York Times' culture reporter Dave Itzkoff has a new biography of Robin Williams called Robin. Vanity Fair has an excerpt about the months leading up to his death. It's sad and fascinating.
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So why did Robin persist in making these films, each one a far cry from the Hollywood features he had once thrived on, and which were lucky to receive even a theatrical release? Why did he continue to fill every free block of time in his schedule with work, whatever work he could find? Yes, he needed the money, especially now that he had two ex-wives and a new spouse he wanted to provide with a comfortable home. “There are bills to pay,” he said. “My life has downsized, in a good way. I’m selling the ranch up in Napa. I just can’t afford it anymore.” He hadn’t lost all his money, but, he said, “Lost enough. Divorce is expensive.”
Robin continued to bounce from one low-budget film to the next. But he finally seemed poised for a professional resurgence when he was cast in The Crazy Ones, a new CBS comedy show that would make its debut in September 2013. The series was Robin’s first ongoing television role since Mork & Mindy ended three decades earlier, casting him as Simon Roberts, the irrepressible, not yet over-the-hill co-founder of a fast-paced Chicago advertising agency he runs with his straitlaced daughter (Sarah Michelle Gellar).
The Crazy Ones seemed perfectly calibrated for the older audience cultivated by CBS, which had a track record for giving new lifeblood to bygone TV stars, while the show provided Robin with distinct opportunities to improvise in each episode.
See sample pages from this book at Wink.
Woody Guthrie and the Dust Bowl Ballads
by Nick Hayes
Harry N. Abrams
16, 272 pages, 8.6 x 8.6 x 1.2 inches
$19 Buy a copy on Amazon
A graphic novel of the life and early career of singer Woody Guthrie, Woody Guthrie and the Dust Bowl Ballads is a sepia and dusty brown, linocut illustrated graphic novel. It begins with harrowing tales of his youth – his mother burning his father with coal oil, resulting in her being shipped off to the Hospital For The Insane, the collapse of his Pampa hometown as the plummeting price of wheat ruined the local and national economy, and Guthrie traveling roads and hopping trains during the Great Depression. His encounters with snake oil salesmen and carnival acts, hobos, and migrant workers, as well as his exposure to the music of Cajuns, Native Americans, Xit cowboys, and Appalachian folksong performances at barn dances ultimately inspire him to take up the fiddle and write original tunes.
Along with Woody's story, the book provides a powerful backstory on the environmental conditions of the Dust Bowl region, including the displacement of Native Americans through the push of white settlers on native lands, agriculture techniques that resulted in the tearing up of the bluestem grasses to plant wheat, an unprecedented drought, and the glut of wheat causing the exodus of settlers to California. This all brings to life the tragic unraveling of the fragile Dust Bowl ecosystem and brings about the hardscrabble lives and dust-blown landscape that Guthrie integrates into his music. Read the rest
See sample pages from this book at Wink.
Jane Austen: An Illustrated Biography and
Virginia Woolf: An Illustrated Biography
by Zena Alkayat (author) and Nina Cosford (illustrator)
2016, 128 pages, 6.2 x 6.2 x 0.8 inches
$11 (Virgina Woolf) Buy a copy on Amazon
$14 (Jane Austen) Buy a copy on Amazon
Hand-written text, whimsical illustrations and lots of fun facts are combined into Library of Luminaries’ new series of Illustrated Biographies. The series launches with small, foil-embossed hardcover books about two famous authors – Jane Austen and Virginia Woolf. (The series will release Coco Chanel and Frida Khalo in August.) This collection is an easy way to learn about the lives and careers of classic authors – it’s like Cliff Notes for literature lovers.
Through bits about family histories, friendships, inspirations, career highlights and low points, the reader gets a glimpse into Austen and Woolf’s worlds. I knew some stuff about both authors’ backgrounds, but wow! I still learned a lot! I had no idea that Austen only earned the meager sum of 140 British pounds in royalties for two years' worth of the sales for Sense and Sensibility. And that once Austen’s identity was made public, the Prince Regent contacted her directly because he was a huge fan of her books. She went on to dedicate Emma to him. I also didn’t know that Woolf loved dogs and had a pet marmoset named “Mitz,” nor did I know that it took 15 years for the book The Voyage Out to sell 2000 copies. Read the rest
New Yorker staff writer Jane Mayer has a new book coming out, Dark Money, which chronicles the influence of a small handful of ultra-rich dynastic American families on US politics. Read the rest
See sample pages from this book at Wink.
Before reading this massive comic book biography about Pablo Picasso (1881–1973), I knew almost nothing about him. I thought he’d spent most of his life in Spain, so I was surprised to learn that he began his career in Montmartre, the Bohemian district of Paris in the early 1900s. The story is mainly told through the recollections of Fernande Olivier, who was Picasso’s lover before Picasso became famous and who modeled for over 60 of his paintings. In addition to chronicling Picasso’s early years, Pablo is like a short course in the art scene of Paris at time. It never feels like a textbook, though, thanks to Julie Birmant’s fine storytelling.
Each panel, rendered by Clement Oubrerie, is a lush watercolor painting. I had to slow down while reading it to appreciate the detail.
Pablo: Art Masters Series
by Julie Birmant and Clement Oubrerie
2015, 342 pages, 7.5 x 1.1 x 9.5 inches (paperback)
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This past spring, the This is… series of graphic biographies about famous Western artists kicked off with a trio of handsome, modestly scaled books on Andy Warhol, Salvador Dali, and Jackson Pollock, thereby covering its pop, surrealism, and abstract-expressionism bases in one swift stroke. This fall, This is… ventured into somewhat less predictable terrain with a pair of titles devoted to Paul Gauguin and Francis Bacon. Read the rest
Dig Me, Vampira was like nothing that had yet appeared in television’s brief existence. Premiering on April 30, 1954, it became an instant hit in the Los Angeles area. Then things exploded. By W. Scott Poole.
I recently reviewed the incredible graphic novel biography, The Fifth Beatle: The Brian Epstein Story, written by Vivek J. Tiwary and illustrated by Andrew C. Robinson and Kyle Baker. (It was just nominated for two Eisner awards!)
Last week I announced that Wink (a paper book review website that my wife Carla Sinclair edits) was holding a giveaway of the rare signed, numbered, slipcased "Limited Edition" of The Fifth Beatle, which is limited to 1500 copies, signed by all three creators and comes with an exclusive tip-in page of art. Entrants to the giveaway were asked to write their own text for the word balloons in the panel above. (Clockwise L-R John Lennon, George Harrison, Brian Epstein, Ringo Starr, Paul McCartney. NOTE: John has 2 balloons.)
The entries were judged by Vivek J. Tiwary himself, and he selected a winner for the limited edition and a runner-up for a regular edition. Read the rest
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Leander Kahney has covered Apple for more than a dozen years and has written three popular books about Apple, including Inside Steve’s Brain and The Cult of Mac. His newest book is a biography of Apple's senior VP of design, called Jony Ive: The Genius behind Apple's Greatest Products.
Millions are familiar with Apple's legendary aesthetic. It's what makes their products instantly recognizable, and is synonymous with craft, care, and quality.
And though the design is iconic, few are familiar with the man behind the design: Jonathan Ive, chief designer. Not only has Ive made Apple one of the most valuable companies in the world -- his design has overturned entire industries, from music and mobile phones to PCs and tablets.
Unlike his former boss and creative partner Steve Jobs, Ive shuns the spotlight. Naturally shy and soft-spoken, he lets his work speak for itself. In Jony Ive: The Genius behind Apple's Greatest Products, Kahney offers a gripping and thorough examination of a remarkably creative career and provides insight into the principles underlying Ive's success.
Here's my interview with Leander in the second episode of my new podcast, Incredibly Interesting Authors.
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Here's a preview from Michael Schumacher and Denis Kitchen's excellent new biography, Al Capp, A Life to the Contrary.
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More than thirty years have passed since Al Capp's death, and he may no longer be a household name. But at the height of his career, his groundbreaking comic strip, Li'l Abner, reached ninety million readers. The strip ran for forty-three years, spawned two movies and a Broadway musical, and originated such expressions as "hogwash" and "double-whammy." Capp himself was a familiar personality on TV and radio; as a satirist, he was frequently compared to Mark Twain.
Though Li'l Abner brought millions joy, the man behind the strip was a complicated and often unpleasant person. A childhood accident cost him a leg -- leading him to art as a means of distinguishing himself. His apprenticeship with Ham Fisher, creator of Joe Palooka, started a twenty-year feud that ended in Fisher's suicide. Capp enjoyed outsized publicity for a cartoonist, but his status abetted sexual misconduct and protected him from the severest repercussions. Late in life, his politics became extremely conservative; he counted Richard Nixon as a friend, and his gift for satire was redirected at targets like John Lennon, Joan Baez, and anti-war protesters on campuses across the country.
With unprecedented access to Capp's archives and a wealth of new material, Michael Schumacher and Denis Kitchen have written a probing biography. Capp's story is one of incredible highs and lows, of popularity and villainy, of success and failure-told here with authority and heart.