The Best of Archy and Mehitabel by Don Marquis

[rating=5] Genius. Pure genius. I savored ‘Archy and Mehitabel’; read every last word. From the insightful introductory essay by E.B. White, to the scratchy pen illustrations by George Herriman of ‘Krazy Kat and Ignatz’ fame, to the final poem by Don Marquis, the whole thing filled me with glee.

Marquis was a newspaper reporter during and after WWI, and these vers libre poems were published in the New York Sun between 1916 and the early 1920s. The humor is timeless, but they are steeped in the mood and politics and society of that era. The subject matter of the poems varies widely; from ghosts and ectoplasm to Shakespeare and theater, and the narrators are variously cats, parrots, rats, toads, fleas, moths, and dogs.

The poems are written without punctuation or capitalization, using line breaks to give the necessary rhythmic pauses. This is because they were written by a fictional cockroach, Archy, who was a free verse poet in a previous life, and who wrote stories on Don’s old typewriter at the newspaper office when everyone in the building had left.

Archy accomplished this in a painful fashion by flinging himself headfirst down onto the keys (thus, no capitals, as it would be impossible for him to hit a key and shift at the same time with his full-body typing technique). When he needs explicit punctuation, he has to type it out full length, as ‘exclamation point’, ‘period’ or ‘question mark’.

Mehitabel, Archy’s partner in crime, is another transmigrated soul. A downtrodden alley cat with loose morals, she claims to have been Cleopatra in a former life. Mehitabel laments the domestic trials of the female artist hampered by kittens, but her constant refrains of wotthehell wotthehell and toujours gai toujours gai show her resilient and devil-may-care spirit.

I don’t know what it is about these stories that captured my imagination so completely. The voice of Archy is distinctive, seductive, persuasive. He often despairs of his condition as a bug, not in a Kafkaesque way, but in the manner of a true writer plagued by doubt and angst about the quality of his verse, always struggling against his muse, asking the question “is it literature?”. His mastery of language is awe-inspiring. His turn of phrase is quick, nonchalant and witty.

In the poem ‘archy interviews a pharaoh’ (which is actually about Prohibition and a thirst for beer), Archy devises half a dozen playful ways of referring to the dry pharoah in a deferential yet saucy manner. He calls him ‘my regal leatherface’, ‘old tan and tarry’, ‘the princely raisin’, ‘divine drought’, ‘my reverend juicelessness’, and ‘the royal dessication’.

I found myself wanting to type out several of these poems – notably, ‘the lesson of the moth’ – to print and post around my workplace as a constant reminder of the juicy essence of life and romance, and the universal pain of writing. They taste like Walt Whitman and Herman Melville, yet they bubble with an effervescence and playfulness all their own. They look forward, towards John Steinbeck and Henry Miller and the Beat generation to come.

This is not your standard poetry. It’s not likely to be studied in English literature classes in high school (more’s the pity), it doesn’t often rhyme and it isn’t Tennyson or Milton (although the writer has clearly read and revered these greats, and references them in his work). Marquis speaks in an American voice, a free voice, a laughing, crying, comic, tragic voice. It’s great stuff and I hope you read it.

5 of 5 stars / bookshelves: read, poetry, comedy, 224 pages, Publisher: Everyman’s Library (2011)
Read from October 19 to November 25, 2012

Saga, Vol.1 by Brian Vaughan & Fiona Staples

[rating=4] Where to begin a review of ‘Saga’? The art. THE ART! Oh my heavens, the beautiful, lush, sketchy ink lines. That sensuous, alien colour palette. Those bizarre, freaky, nightmarish creatures. The fonts!

Our heroine Alana, looking a bit like a cocoa-skinned, green-haired Posh Spice, is easy on the eyes, as is her horny (in the literal sense) lover, Marco. Even hideous beings, like The Stalk, were visually captivating. Loved the attention to detail in varied lettering for different languages, phone calls, and thoughts.

Lots of folks say this is Romeo and Juliet meets Star Wars, but that is both oversimplifying and misleading. There is no Darth Vader here, no rebel alliance, no death star. There is war, and there is love, and there is someone dressed a bit like Han Solo, but she’s a chick with a Baby Bjorn strapped over her leather belt and blaster holster.

I’d like to talk about Vaughan’s bold gambit to tear his plot away from the stale, re-fried tropes of action-adventure comic book writing by including parenting as a core focus of his text.

I’d like to point out where he spits in the face of tradition, writing non-Asimovian robots with power, emotions, and the ability to procreate; a beautiful heroine who keeps her clothes on, only flashing her tits when she needs them for breast feeding (never fear, this is sci-fi; plenty o’ other naked boobies on display), and a decent (albeit undead) teenaged babysitter.

I’d like to discuss how he manages to write convincing dialogue for new parents, whose concerns parallel the conversations I hear in my daily life as a thirty-something. Except for the magic, monsters and bounty hunters, of course. And the talking cat. And the rocket ship treasure hunt. And the ghosts.

I’d sure like to talk about all that, but Fiona Staples has so blown me away with her lovely drawing, inking and colouring that I am having trouble focusing on anything else in this comic.

A nice first collection, although you can tell this is going to be a slow-moving epic that will require patience to grow and expand fully. I guess the title kind of gives that away, but plot development is going at about a Jeff Smith’s ‘Bone’ pace, so I suspect the arc length will run to about a dozen books total. Be prepared to commit if you like what you see.

Totally worth $10. Always happy to support women working in comics; many thanks to Ms. Staples for making it easy to love her work.

Note: This book contains graphic, nasty scenes of violence, sexual intercourse, childbirth and heavy intimations (not visually depicted, thankfully) of bestiality and pedophilia. Probably not a good purchase for your nine-year-old nephew or niece, unless you want his/her parents to hate you. But as a free-thinking, money-earning adult, you should totally buy a copy for yourself.

Final note: I have decided my nom-de-plume as a romance novelist will be D. Oswald Heist.

Other beautifully inked comics with strong female leads:

1) Jason Little’s ‘Shutterbug Follies’

2) Ted Naifeh’s ‘Courtney Crumrin and the Night Things’

3) Lise Myhre’s ‘Nemi’

4) Greg Rucka’s ‘Whiteout’

4 of 5 stars / bookshelves: read, sci-fi-fantasy, graphic-novel, 160 pages, Publisher: Image (2012)
Read on October 22, 2012