They Don’t Make Them Like They Used To: R. Crumb’s Big Yum Yum Book

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Robert Crumb is a regular name discussed in the Fierro household. We always keep our eyes open for an issue of Zap, Snatch, or Big Ass Comics, and we adore his illustrations for Harvey Pekar’s American Splendor. Despite this admiration and respect for his work, over the holiday, we realized that we did not own the Big Yum Yum Book, and that was an enormous error in judgement.

In order to not wallow too much in the glory of the past (which happens, but more offline), I try to keep reviews here constrained to comics and graphic novels released in the present and no more than three years back. Occasionally, I have to make exceptions for works of the past that I feel have left our collective memory of comics, so this week, I could not pass up the opportunity to write about the Big Yum Yum Book.

Cover for the SLC Books 1995 Printing of the Big Yum Yum Book

When we think of Robert Crumb, most hardly would describe his work as sweet, endearing, or lovely because of the sexual audacity of his creations in San Francisco’s underground; however, the Big Yum Yum Book, started in 1962 but not published until 1975, presents a softer Crumb, one who was nineteen and had yet to fully understand his carnal desires and his artistic style, and while the book lacks the exaggerated visuals and sexuality of his comics made only a few years after the completion of Big Yum Yum, it reveals the early cleverness and awareness of Crumb that would eventually morph into extreme hyperbole in the figure we now consider as the elder statesman of underground comix. In his introduction to the 1975 original publication, Crumb notes that he finds this book “adolescent and immature” and that others will feel it is “too cute,” but as Harvey Pekar notes in the introduction to the SLG Books 1995 edition, do not let the vivid and exquisite colors and the adorable animal characters and drawing style fool you into believing that this is a naive love story; the Big Yum Yum Book is an exceptional accomplishment that sharply comments on the young of the 1960s and captures life as an aloof observer during that time.

Ogden, a toad and our protagonist, enters college and adulthood with open and cynical eyes. As the child of a prominent business toad who hopes his son will continue his legacy, Ogden immediately realizes that college life does not suit him. He cannot relate to the intellectuals, the open lovers, the beatniks, or the political activists, and after exhausting attempts to fit in, he has an outburst from frustration that changes his life. After crushing and burying the ladybugs in his shared dorm room during his surge of anger, a giant beanstalk erupts from the ground and holds on to Ogden, launching him into space and eventually onto another planet.

Here on this new planet, Ogden has escaped the concrete harshness of the city he had known and has arrived to a beautiful forest abundant with fruit, greenery, and trees. After spending a few days in the bliss of nature, he realizes that, despite all of the greatness of his new home, he is lonely, like Adam in the garden of Eden, and ventures on finding some company. Ogden quickly discovers Guntra, a portly teenage girl, and he instantaneously falls in love. Unfortunately, Guntra only sees Ogden (and every animal that once lived on the planet) as food, but his love will not subside.

The Big Yum Yum Book progresses into a love story, but one from the mind of Robert Crumb, so do not worry, nothing is sentimental here. In the course of Ogden’s pursuit of the ever hungry Guntra, we not only see how love transforms an individual but also how humanity can disintegrate in the surrounding world and how different members of society inadequately react to its downfall. To deliver its biting assessment of our world, the Big Yum Yum Book twists motifs and stories common in Western literature such as the frog prince, the witch hunt, and the fall of the Garden of Eden into its absurdity, making this book undoubtedly one of satire but one that never takes itself too seriously. In turn, the Big Yum Yum Book has a levity to it that balances the severity of Crumb’s own observations of the time, making this book an impressive work for any comicbook creator not to mention a nineteen year old one.

Crumb in the years immediately following the Big Yum Yum Book exponentially increased the absurdity and the perversity in his comics, which definitely heightened the controversy around him and made his work less approachable. For those of us who enjoy these more obscene works, we’ll distill the core essence behind his exaggerations, but for people who do not really comprehend Crumb’s perspective, please read the Big Yum Yum Book, and you’ll understand that much more lies underneath the lurid illustrations of large women in sexual positions; Crumb is a highly perceptive satirist who, like Ogden, does not quite fit in but can use his alienation to assess the world without looking and sounding like a misanthrope. He may lose some friends and completely embarrass himself along the route of self-discovery, but he knows himself, and this self-awareness is the ultimate signature of Crumb that already existed in his earliest works. This key feature would just take on a more extreme and vulgar shell as he progressed as an artist and began to pour out his own psyche onto panels, but you must admire his unrelenting honesty and boldness to admit his inner desires, even if the pages of Snatch make you blush or shudder in shock.

Big Yum Yum Book is available via SLG Books; it features photographs of the original artwork. 

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A Stark, Desperate Post-War Japan in Tadao Tsuge’s Trash Market

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I have not delved too far into Japanese manga, not to mention gekiga, so the recent collection of Tadao Tsuge’s comics collected into a volume entitled Trash Market was a sobering breath of fresh air into new territory for me.

Cover of the Trash Market Volume

Perhaps the Japanese counterpart to America’s Harvey Pekar, Tadao Tsuge’s work has the same spirit of sharp observation as American Splendor but with a bleakness and dourness only possible from a person living in the slum and red light district of post war, attempting to reconstruct Tokyo. And, if the approaches toward comics realism did not parallel Tadao’s work to Harvey Pekar’s enough, his brother, Yoshiharu Tsuge is known as the Robert Crumb of Japan, who attempted to get Tadao work as professional cartoonist and who also included Tadao’s works in his own publications. However, while Tadao did have a few years where he worked solely as a cartoonist, he spent most of his life working low skill blue collar or white collar jobs by day to make a living and drawing and writing at night as somewhat of a hobby, making his life and perspective that much closer to those of Harvey Pekar.

But, unlike Pekar, Tadao Tsuge’s stories, though somewhat autobiographical, do not have Tsuge in the foreground teaching a specific lesson to the reader; they attempt to capture societal issues faced by the lower and middle classes in a Japan devastated by war purely through observation combined with a layer of surrealism and absurdism without explicit rhetoric or argument. In addition, Tsuge’s work has an overwhelming sense of sorrow that punches you in the stomach, for his stories have few moments of lightness and focus on the desperation of people trying to survive after a devastating war that not only destroyed the land but also the morale of the nation.

Trash Market contains six stories: “Up on the Hilltop, Vincent Van Gogh…,” “Song of Showa,” “Manhunt,” “Gently Goes the Night,” “A Tale of Absolute and Utter Nonsense,” and “Trash Market.” In addition, the volume also contains, “The Tadao Tsuge Revue (1994-1997)”, a short memoir about his life and the people and issues he encountered as a dual working class Japanese man and cartoonist in the late 1950s and early 1960s. With all six stories and the memoir, Tsuge reveals a side of Japan rarely seen by Western audiences, devoid of the honor and stoic countenance of the samurai culture Westerners have come to love and completely devoid of the hyperbolic style and sexuality of manga. In relation to film, Tsuge is less Akira Kurosawa and more of Susumu Hani, with his realistically surreal style to portray a decrepit Japan stumbling from the ashes of war.

Tsuge at his best captures masculine pain and men’s misguided attempts to handle it in a highly repressive culture where most of the men have died and those who remain carry the shame of losing a war. As a result, “Song of Showa,” “Gently Goes the Night,” and “Trash Market” rise as the strongest stories of the Trash Market collection. The most autobiographical of the bunch, “Song of Showa,” details the erosion of the family unit in Japan’s red light district. “Gently Goes the Night” follows the mental breakdown of a veteran once sent to fight in Burma who is now at home attempting to live a normal life with a loving family. And lastly, “Trash Market,” a perfect closer to the volume and the ideal title piece, expands on a note in a urinal at the blood bank Tadao worked at from a former Japanese naval lieutenant forced to sell blood to live. Tsuge’s Japan has no glory, no honor, just plenty of broken people trying to make ends meet.

Consequently, Tadao Tsuge’s work walks the line between existentialism and pure nihilism. Defiantly apolitical, Tsuge’s stories in Trash Market do not glamorize or celebrate any of the student movements and protests occurring as he wrote and published in the late 1960s and early 1970s. In fact, he articulates his own sense of politics in the supremely nihilistic “A Tale of Absolute and Utter Nonsense,” where revolutionary, idealistic students clash against the police and soldiers of the government, and both sides completely destroy each other, leading to no progress whatsoever. From this destruction, we are able to see that Tsuge had far less interest in the politics of the government and of the rising youth and far more interest in studying people in their daily lives without a political lens stemming from any manifesto or ideals.

A page from Song of Showa

Given his topics and perspective, Tadao Tsuge’s comics are incredibly far from manga. His drawings are simple and at times coarse, and his storytelling methods are more atmospheric, lacking a definitive plot structure and clear protagonists and antagonists. His work focuses on the daily activities of a declining civilization, and, as a result, Trash Market conveys a unique, stark sense of despair and gloom. Thus, it is of no surprise that Ryan Holmberg, the editor and translator of Trash Market, reversed the orientation of the original stories, making the volume read from left to right instead of the right to left that we as the West have come to correlate with the novelty of manga.

Tsuge’s work may not be the best reading choice on a bad day, but his own portrayal of life’s small brutalities will force you to see a world hardly discussed in Western history and will provoke sympathy for a former enemy nation during a time when it was still considered as the enemy. Through interactions between people, Tsuge details a rotting, abject world that few deserve to experience. Altogether, Trash Market reveals a part of Japan’s history that we should better understand.

Expect no babydolls or samurai here–only the honest, somber post-occupation Japanese reality lurking beneath the luster of Japan’s exports lies in Tadao Tsuge’s stories.

Trash Market is written and illustrated by Tadao Tsuge and edited and translated by Ryan Holmberg. It collects six stories published from 1968-1972It is available now via Drawn & Quarterly.

 

Forming Beliefs with Harvey Pekar in Not the Israel My Parents Promised Me

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While Generoso is the Pekar aficionado in the Fierro house, for this week’s graphic novel glimpse, I will be reviewing Harvey Pekar’s Not the Israel My Parents Promised Me. I’ve read a few sections from various volumes of American Splendor, and there are many layers to Harvey Pekar to be extracted from those works, and all of those layers are at play in his last work prior to his passing, Not the Israel My Parents Promised Me.

When I think of Harvey Pekar, I think of him as the essential perspective on modern American life. Harvey is fairly neurotic, but he is also sharply insightful. Harvey is a regular man who had a fairly regular 9-5 job but also had a profound love for jazz and comic books. Harvey Pekar has an amazing ability to extract a fable around proper social behavior from some of the seemingly most meaningless details about our existence, and for that, he is a voice that is missing in this post-modern era.

Harvey Pekar via Gerry Shamray and The Comics Journal

Consequently, in light of the current and likely transient ceasefire between Israel and Palestine, I feel that now is a good time to review Pekar’s statement on his political belief on a subject that hits close to home for him. Not the Israel My Parents Promised Me was not Harvey’s first foray into politically focused graphic novels. In 2007, he wrote Macedonia with Heather Roberson, which was his novel dedicated to exploring the political and social climate of Macedonia, one of the few former Yugoslavian states that avoided civil war.

While Not the Israel My Parents Promised Me is a highly political graphic novel that most definitely conveys Harvey’s opinion on the state of Israel, it is more about the formation of one’s political and spiritual perspectives in the progression of life. The novel takes you through the formation of Harvey’s spiritual and political identity without any heavy handedness or any dogmatism. What becomes the most brilliant feature of the novel is its ability to weave  Jewish scripture and theological history with political history across centuries leading up to the current conflict while also unraveling how this gained knowledge of the history of the conflict molded Harvey’s perspective.

In the novel, we see the progression of beliefs that many of us go through, and the various stopping points that stunt people from forming clear, individual beliefs. As a child, Harvey established his beliefs about Israel based on the teachings of highly pro-Zionist parents. Naturally, he accepted what his parents taught him without questioning their’ motives and often clear hypocrisy with a naïve and fervent acquiescence and acceptance that is all too similar to our own belief foundation periods as children when we simply did not have any other frame of reference.

As the narrative progresses, Harvey meets people who began to change his pro-Zionist views, which he held until his twenties. In addition, he weaves in the events in the the late 60s which fully reversed his opinion on Israel. Gradually, we begin to understand why pro-Zionism was erased from the identity of adult Harvey Pekar.

Above all, what is one of the most clever devices of the narrative is its structure and relationship to younger Jewish Americans who Harvey interacts with as he tells the history and the events that led to his change in belief. Harvey interacts with his illustrator, a younger Jewish American who spent time in a kibbutz in Israel, and the sons of a bookstore that he frequents. In establishing the history of the Jewish faith and the diasporas over thousands of years, it becomes clear that the younger men he interacted with either did not have knowledge of this essential history or did not take the time to tie the centuries-old history to the current conflict. And consequently, their beliefs around faith and the intertwined thoughts on the state of Israel are quite uninformed, naïve beliefs. With the interactions with these younger men, Harvey is able to convey how lack of knowledge and lack of commitment to tie all of the parts necessary to form one’s political and spiritual beliefs can lead to passiveness that is detrimental to our own identities, and consequently, our macro identities as a cultural group and as a society.

From the political perspective, Not the Israel My Parents Taught Me is Harvey’s literary piece to convince people to question their pro-Zionist views, but this is all done in the signature Harvey Pekar way. All of the persuasion is as objective as he can make it and is delivered in small moments of his own memories ranging from his memory of his mother never attending synagogue to taking a class with an anti-Zionist peer in college to much larger moments in history ranging from the foundation of the Israeli State to the brash expansion of the state into surrounding occupied territories under Prime Minister Menachem Begin in the 70s. In the formation of Harvey’s beliefs on Israel, we are taken on a fragmented ride that we experience with the formation of any belief, any stance we take in life. And while Harvey is persuading the reader to reject pro-Zionist views and the political motivations of the state of Israel today, he is also persuading us to read, to learn, to question, and to think about any major political and spiritual belief we have in life. He encourages us to understand, dissect, and try to disregard our biases that may come from our parents, our families, and our communities in order to establish beliefs that are informed, intelligent, and ultimately, ones that we can wholly believe in.

Not the Israel My Parents Promised Me is written by Harvey Pekar and illustrated by JT Waldman. It is available via Hill and Wang publishing.