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REVIEW: The World Atlas of Street Art and Graffiti

[This coffee-table/Christmas-gift-ready overview and history of street art is the latest C4 Great Read.]

world-atlas-of-street-artAuthor: Rafael Schacter

2013, Yale University Press

Filed under: Nonfiction, Other

Find it at Goodreads

C4 Ratings...out of 10
Language..... 7
Entertainment..... 8
Depth..... 8
Art.... 10

I’m an amiable fan of street art, not quite an enthusiast, and certainly not a scholar of it. As such, the aptly named World Atlas of Street Art and Graffiti fits me quite well. It’s first and foremost a coffee table book and it features a wealth of beautifully presented images, but it also links them together with a unique and quite informative organizational strategy: it’s literally an atlas, organized by geography and grouped into continents and cities. In addition to profiles of artists, Rafael Schacter details specific places and gives site-specific mini-histories of localized street art movements.

He starts in New York, in the 1960s, when the first taggers competed to make their names stand out in a sea of graffiti, and moves on to anti-dictatorship pixação in São Paulo, the heavy historical politics of graffiti in Berlin, the painting brigades of late-’70s Stockholm, and many more cities and street art cultures. It’s simultaneously a light and browse-able format (each city profile is only two pages), and a quite thorough introduction to the fascinating history behind a street art movement that has been gathering steam for decades, though it has only recently come into the public zeitgeist.
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REVIEW: Songs That Saved Your Life: The Art of the Smiths 1982-1987

 Author: Simon Goddard

2013, Titan Books

Filed Under: Nonfiction, Other

Find it at Titan Books

C4 Ratings...out of 10
Language..... 6
Entertainment..... 5
Depth..... 9

Any Smiths fan will be thrilled at what Simon Goddard has accomplished here. Within this attractively-packaged 350-page tome – an update to the author’s original 2002 version – resides passionately researched exhaustive appendices about the bands catalogue, as well as comprehensive annotated histories of Smiths shows, radio and TV appearances. It’s all here, and the author is to be commended in the diligence of his research.

But is Songs fun to read for, at best, a casual Smiths fan? Well, as the rating above suggests, kind of? To explain: this isn’t so much a retrospective of a body of work as it is an effort from the author to explain how brilliant his favorite band is… over and over. When I wrote that the material was passionately researched, I mean Goddard is the most passionate person about the Smiths, except for maybe Seymour Stein (more on him below) and probably Morrissey.
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REVIEW: The Fifty-Year Sword (ebook edition)

Author: Mark Z. Danielewski

2012, Pantheon

Filed under: Literary, Other

Find it at Goodreads

C4 Ratings...out of 10
Language..... 5
Entertainment..... 6
Depth..... 2

I’m inclined to tell you that I’m not the audience for this, to brush off my dislike of it as a case of subjectivity, and shrug. But I’m not sure that’s true. Danielewski’s latest (though it was first published in 2005, more on that below) is a bizarre, experimental work, a semi-metafictional fable whose appeal lies as much in its presentation as its content.

And the thing is, I’m a pretty good audience for that. (I won’t say a “perfect” audience, since I didn’t like it at all, but a pretty good audience.) I love Nabokov’s Pale Fire, I love Robert Coover, I love John Barth (his “Lost in the Funhouse,” a quintessential metafictional work, remains my favorite story of all time), I even like knockoffs of these classics, like Sudden Noises from Inanimate Objects.

Compared to those works of genuine, intelligent experimentation, The Fifty Year Sword reads like a children’s book. Its experimentation is often forced, unnecessary, and/or redundant, serving to obfuscate the story being told more often than illuminate it.

Sometimes brilliant eccentrics come up with works of stunning genius, and sometimes they come up with works of overcooked nonsense. You might get an idea of which this is if I quote from a short note regarding the history of this story: 
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REVIEW: Flash Gordon – The Tyrant of Mongo

Author: Alex Raymond

2012 (anthologized), Titan Books

Filed Under: Graphic Novel, Sci-Fi, Other

Find it on Goodreads.

C4 Ratings...out of 10
Language..... 6
Entertainment..... 8
Depth..... 5
Art...... 10

The only newspaper comic strips I read regularly or cared about were funny strips, like Calvin and Hobbes and Peanuts, or one-panel gag comics like The Far Side. I hated the soap opera and adventure strips. In fact, the only adventure strip I read consistently was The Amazing Spider-Man, and then only because it featured a character I already knew from the comics. And still I hated it.

Funny comic strips began and ended within the span of those three to five panels. They’re like a fractal storytelling – part of the whole, and yet the entire concept exists within a single unit. The dramatic strips offered only the briefest fragment of a story, and never enough information to usher new readers into the plot. I never felt guilty skipping Prince Valiant, Apartment 3-G, or any of the others. But Flash Gordon: The Tyrant of Mongo, the second volume of Titan Books’ reprints of the original strips, has me reconsidering my clean conscience.

The Tyrant of Mongo collects the color Sunday strips drawn by Alex Raymond and co-written by Raymond and Don Moore from 1937 to 1941, each fully restored by Peter Maresca. The restoration is stunning – the palette shifts effectively between the muted earth tones of the planet Mongo and Flash’s bright costumes, and Raymond’s careful line work and shading are preserved. A disclaimer on the edition page asks for the reader’s patience with variations in quality considering the condition of some of the original art, but any differences I noticed were minor, and never distracted from the reading. And as each strip takes up a full page, the panels blossom to reveal the fine detail and control of Raymond’s art.

Raymond earned his place in the cartoonists and illustrators pantheon, along with Milton Caniff, Hal Foster, and Will Eisner, with his work on Gordon (not to mention Jungle Jim and the detective strip, Rip Kirby) and his influence on Golden Age comic book artists, most notably Jack Kirby, is evident in every strip. And the intricately designed machinery, fantastic clothes and costumes, and use of dynamic close-ups and panel composition on display in the Flash Gordon strips continues to define the look of comic books. And while Raymond’s art could be considered stiff, particularly in contrast to that of Kirby or any number of contemporary cartoonists, it’s just as compelling. Consider that Raymond was producing strips of this caliber on a weekly basis for close to a decade, and the resulting quality is all the more impressive.
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REVIEW: The Great Showdowns

Author: Scott Campbell

2012, Titan Books

Filed Under: Other

Find it on Goodreads.

C4 Ratings...out of 10
Language..... n/a
Entertainment..... 7
Depth..... 1
Art....... 9

A fine companion piece to the Olly Moss (it turns out the artists are buds) book I reviewed a few weeks back, this book is similar in both size and scope. It contains page after page of doodles of famous character match-ups, mainly from movies (Ridley and a xenomorph; the cast of Big Lebowski; Tony Montana and a smiling pile of coke).

There’s not a lot of depth here obviously–unless you want to be a prat and use it to start a conversation about semiotics and binary oppositions–but the art is really great. It’s a book full of kinda goofy cartoon caricatures of iconic characters, painted in watercolor. A few of the other C4 guys and I had a fun time flipping through it and trying to identify some of the more esoteric depictions.

By complete coincidence, I saw a documentary* with Campbell in it the very day I received this review copy in the mail. He’s one of the lead artists for Double Fine, video game darling Tim Schafer’s company, and lead designer on their 2005 Psychonauts, which is one of the most creative and downright wonderful (as well as under-appreciated) games to come out in the past 10 years. (Some of the game’s art can be seen in this free iOS app.)

I enjoyed this book more than Moss’s, but offer the same endorsement. It’s a nice curio; a solid coffee table conversation starter or something that’s just right for displaying on the top of your toilet tank.

Similar Reads: Silhouettes from Popular Culture (Moss)

 

[A review was requested and a review copy provided.]

*Double Fine is making a new game funded primarily by Kickstarter, and the development is being documented episodically. It’s quite well done, actually, with impressive production value. Definitely worth watching–but I think you need to be a backer to actually watch it (for now).

REVIEW: Silhouettes from Popular Culture

Author: Olly Moss

2012, Titan Books

Filed Under: Other

Find it on Goodreads.

C4 Ratings...out of 10
Language..... n/a
Entertainment..... 6
Depth..... 1
Art....... 7

This neat little curio offers exactly what the title suggests, silhouettes from popular culture. There are no words, and there is little color. It’s just a book full of mostly black and white character profiles (reprinting artworks created from laser-cut paper)  styled after Victorian cameos.

It’s a fun thing to flip though though, and a worthy conversation starter to leave laying on a coffee table or the like. Moss’s subjects run the gamut from TV and movies, to video games, comics, and music. Some are pretty esoteric, and a handful even left me stumped.

It’s unlikely you’ll want to spend more than a few minutes with this book, but for what it is, it’s quite enjoyable. If this is the sort of knickknack you like to keep laying around, go nuts.

Similar Reads: The Tiny Book of Tiny Stories (Gordon-Levitt, ed.)

[A review was requested and a review copy provided.]

REVIEW: Dinosaur Art

Editor: Steve White

2012, Titan

Filed Under: Nonfiction

Find it on Goodreads.

C4 Ratings...out of 10
Language..... 7
Entertainment..... 9
Depth..... 8
Dinosaur Bonus... 10

Look, there’s not much of a bush to beat around here. Let’s start with a simple question, are you in favor of coffee table books? No? Very well, carry on, friend; we’re done for today. If yes, a follow up question: dinosaurs are fucking awesome, true or false? A second follow-up: dinosaurs were real, true or false? If you answered false to either, hit the road you crazy creationist weirdo. (Perhaps this creepy Amish romance novel is more to your liking.)

Okay for all the sane people  still here: boy, do I have the book for you. This has the distinction of being the last piece of mail I received at my former address, an apartment I was all too happy to be rid of. What a pleasant surprise to open the box and find this cover rawring up at me; what a fine send-off from the book review gods. I read it cover to cover twice in one sitting, nestled in a throne/fort I crafted out of packed-up boxes of books (seriously). It was an amazingly great way to unwind after a very long day.

This book compiles the paleoart of a number of different artists. It’s full of interviews with them talking about their craft, as well as explanations of the paintings and the creatures they bring to life. I don’t know what else there is to say. It’s pretty interesting stuff, how they take paleontological data and interpolate into into huge, life-like scenes of dinosaurs being awesome.

CRUNCH! Tell me this doen’t make you squee like a little kid being offered a ride in the firetruck with the separate steering wheel for the back wheels. Pardon the image quality, my new apartment doesn’t have many lights yet.

I’ve actually read a good number of dinosaur books in my day, and I’ve got to say, this is right up there with some of the best I’ve seen. The pictures are lush and colorful (there’s even a page that pulls out into a giant panorama scene) and the range of creatures covered is varied–and described to satisfying detail in the accompanying text. But that’s just icing on the Jurassic cake of badass dinosaur paintings.

The very first thing I did when I opened this book was flip through the pages quickly to see how many different pictures of stegosauruses there were. If you’re a manchild like me, or perhaps even a real child, and you already know which dinosaur you would look for, you should probably go out and pick up this book when it comes out next week.

I hope next time I move someone sends me a copy of a book full of drawings of giant robots fighting in space.

[A review was requested and a review copy provided.]

REVIEW: The Tiny Book of Tiny Stories

Editor: Joseph Gordon Levitt

2011, hitRECord

Filed Under: Short Stories, Poetry, Graphic Novels

C4 Ratings...out of 10
Language..... 6
Entertainment..... 7
Depth..... 7
Presentation.. 9

As the name implies, this is a short little book filled with “stories” that are mostly less than a sentence. Each bite-sized story is paired with a drawing: in a way they’re almost like one panel comic strips, but also not at all like that. While some are funny, some manage to plumb some nice depth, especially for their size. It’s not an impossible thing to do. (The not-exactly-true tale of Hemingway’s shortest story–”For sale, baby shoes, never worn.”–comes to mind.)  Most importantly this is a collaborative book, curated like a lit mag. The art is varied and interesting, and the range of the stories is pleasantly surprising. And yes, that’s the actor Joseph Gordon Levitt* who runs the show.

Tiny Stories is an attractive, if not substantive, little book; a nice thing to have on your shelf, or to leave out on a coffee table. To call it more than a diversion would probably be overdoing things, but it’s a good one. I wrapped up my copy to give as a Christmas present, but then decided to order another for myself. I can see myself quickly flipping through this many times before I’m done with it.

Similar Reads: Our own Eric Markowsky’s collaborative story, “Other Doors, Other Rooms,” over at Camera Obscura was in the same spirit as this.

[This book is currently being advertised on the site--that's how I found it.]

*more or less completely unrelated side-note, he’s the lead in a very smartly written movie titled Brick, a noir-style film set in a high school, which is one of my favorite movies of the last few years.