Monday, November 10, 2014
Tony Millionaire's Maakies comic strip has been running for 20 years now, chronicling the debauched, depressed, repugnant, bleak, diseased adventures of Drinky Crow and Uncle Gabby. Maakies is murky and not for the feint of heart, but it's also hilarious and smart--an equal to Calvin and Hobbes for how lovingly drawn and intelligently written it is. The knife of Tony Millionaire's mind might be rusty and filthy, but it's also scalpel-sharp.
Even if Millionaire's sense of humour and despair isn't your cup of booze, his woodcutting-like pen and ink prowess is impossible to deny. If you're not directly familiar with his work, surely you've encountered his portraiture somewhere or another. He has an antiquated sensibility, is drawn to old Victorian houses and ships in bottles and ornate glass door knobs. This slightly arcane, seemingly proper visual sensibility worked and still works in consistently interesting opposition to the crudity and cruelty of the Maakies reality it depicts.
At first blush a Maakies spin-off, Millionaire introduced Sock Monkey in 2001. Drinky and Gabby ostensibly appear, though rarefied and plush versions of those ne're-do-wells, the "toys" of kind, young Ann-Louise, who lives in a roomy Victorian home based on Millionaire's grandparents'. Though still a grump, Mr. Crow is a far cry from the drunken self-annihilator Drinky, and, aside from the hat and the simianness, Gabby shares little in common with his vile Maakies counterpart. Really, Sock Monkey is worlds apart from Maakies. "Sock Monkey is me trying to rise above all that bullshit," Millionaire has said of his departure, "to be more poetic, looking at the bright side, remembering the things that used to delight me as a child."
Many of Gabby and Mr. Crow's--with their baby doll friend Inches's--adventures take place indoors, where they interact elaborately with the commonplace details of the old home. The prismatic light cast by the glass door knob, the old grandfather clock in the hallway, the model ships in the study. The discovery of the chandelier in the foyer elicits Gabby's purple wonder: "Zounds! A castle hanging int he clouds!! A succulent starry place!! Crystalline halls, sparkling corridors! Hmm... Dare I traipse through heave's constellated wilderness?" Their world is animated--as they themselves are--as it might be by an imaginative child passing time in a many-roomed, many-detailed house.
The Sock Monkey adventures are sweet, filled to the meniscus with the senses and sensations of being little. The art, the quaintness of detail, and the diction suggests classic children's books, stories of how large the world gets when put under the microscope of idle wonder. Whether of not it's suitable for children depends on whether or not you're willing to accept that your child is smarter and weirder than you maybe give them credit for. Really, the worst that might happen is your squirt begins to say things like Zounds and Gadzooks or take an interest in scrimshaw.
Into the Deep Woods arrives on the heels of a beautiful Treasury of the 11 Sock Monkey books, and is a departure from the past decade of visual storytelling. Millionaire has teamed up with Matt Danner, who chums around with the Disney and Pixar folks, to create a long-form prose adventure.
This new story is something of an origin story, where we find out how the toys were enlivened and how they found their way to Ann-Louise. Millionaire's art is consistent throughout, but it rides shotgun to the story. This may to a bit of a letdown to readers who come to the book out of an all encompassing, Maakies loving love for Millionaire. But for those who who are thoroughly charmed by Sock Monkey for Sock Monkey's sake, Into the Deep Woods is a worthy addition to the story. Find Ann-Louise gone, worried she's been taken by the beastly Amarok, they set out on an adventure--"Forge ahead!" becomes the toys' motto--through the woods, under the water, into the air, where they encounter sea monsters, bear inventors, and harpies, and always just narrowly duck the Amarok.
Of all the Sock Monkey books, Into the Deep Woods gets the closet to being best suited for kids. Millionaire's eccentricities are still present and sturdy, but the addition of Danner goes a ways to making the story more inclusive, opened it up to younger readers. Maakies loving, older readers can still get into it to, but they'll probably have to go in on their hands and knees.
Saturday, November 1, 2014
"If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants. When I have failed miserably, that, too, was on the shoulders of giants--giant fuckups, that is."
- Sir Issac Newton (from "Famous Quotations--Unabridged")
Even if you've never heard of Bob Odenkirk, I'd say it's likely that you've seen him before. Maybe you're a die hard Mr. Show fan, or maybe a How I Met Your Mother fan, or a Breaking Bad fan. Odenkirk is the often schmucky, often be-suited, half-witted character, wearing the suit--you figure--to try and distract people from how inept, or half-ept he is. Odenkirk, like Dave Foley on The Kids in the Hall, owes much to the vaudevillian straight man. He'd be a stuffed shirt, if his shirt weren't so rumpled.
Many of the pieces in A Load of Hooey are shot from that schlubby hip: inept politicians, unprepared orators, convocation speakers who become increasingly obsessed with the future porn careers of many of the graduates. The content is all in the title: this is a load of hooey. Poppycock and twaddle and flimshaw. But honed, sharp versions of all that nonsense.
Comedian books are on the rise, but many of them err on the side of biography. Bossy Pants, or Yes Please or Zombie Spaceship Wasteland--even Odenkirk's most visible comedy partner, David Cross, keeps most to personal opinion in his book I Drink For A Reason. Not that there's anything wrong with that, but it relies on your familiarity with that comedian as a personality. Odenkirk--who began his writing career on Saturday Night Live in the mid-80s, was able to flex his weirder muscles on Mr. Show and I think might be the only source of structure conscience on Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!--keeps entirely to set pieces, skits, conceptual monologue. It's a writer's book; a character actor's book. "This is stuff I wrote in between writing TV pilots and movies no one made," is how he describes the book on a recent Nerdist podcast. "Sometimes I'd send them into the New Yorker, but often times I wouldn't, because honestly a lot of the pieces are too crude for the New Yorker."
A Load of Hooey is much more in line with the randomness of 70s classics like Side Effects or Without Feathers or Cruel Shoes--and I'd even argue that there are hints of Leacock's Literary Lapses or Nonsense Novels in all of these comedic grab bags. Without those contexts, Odenkirk's load might feel a bit half-baked, hurried. It's a book of characters and ideas that you wouldn't want to last more than a few pages. Like the use of "hooey" in the title, the approach may be a bit antiquated now that comedians are putting out full fledged self-help books. But Odenkirk knows what he's doing. Whether or not you enjoy this load of hooey relies on whether or not you know what Odenkirk's doing.
Every year the Writers’ Trust / McClelland & Stewart Journey Prize is awarded ‘to a new and developing writer of distinction for a short story published in a Canadian literary publication’. Prior to the Prize three finalists are announced and a diverse anthology of notable stories is selected by three acclaimed jurors. The Journey Prize Stories 26 (McClelland & Stewart) was released on October 7th. This year’s finalists are Tyler Keevil for “Sealskin”, Lori McNulty for “Monsoon Season”, and Clea Young for “Juvenile”. The winner will be announced on November 4.
I asked juror and Journey Prize 20 winner Saleema Nawaz (Mother Superior & Bone and Bread) to give us a hint about what goes on behind the lauded book.
- Brad de Roo, who almost neglected to mention that he’s first read many of Canada’s many celebrated short fiction writers, like Lee Henderson, Rebecca Rosenblum, Neil Smith, Doretta Lau, Anna Leventhal, and Saleema Nawaz in Journey’s bustling pages.
Can you talk a little about the process of selecting this year's anthology?
All the jury members have several months with the stories. I read all the stories several times and made detailed notes. The others, I’m sure, did the same. Then I submitted a longlist, which was compiled by McClelland & Stewart along with the longlists of the other jurors and sent out to each of us. Altogether, this gave us a list of around 30 stories – around a third of the total number of stories that had been submitted and read.
Once we had each been sent that list, we went back and re-read all of those stories, including our own initial selections. I know I did a lot of careful evaluating and reassessing at this stage, and my own sense of the relative merits of the pieces definitely shifted and evolved as I spent more time with them.
A number of our choices overlapped, but we didn’t find out which ones until several weeks later when we got together. It was only at that point that it was revealed which juror(s) had selected each story.
How much discussion was there between the jury, which this year also included Craig Davidson and Steven Beattie?
There was a full day of discussion between the jury members. We went methodically through the list of 30 stories, spending as much time as necessary in order to achieve consensus – even if the consensus was that we were not all in agreement and needed to return to it later. Generally, one of the jurors who had included a story on the longlist began by discussing that story’s merits and the conversation would go on from there.
We all tried to be open about our preferences and blind spots (as much as we were aware of them, I suppose!), and it was a really productive and interesting deliberation. I think we did each engage in a little bit of strategizing and horse-trading (e.g. it would make sense to let go of a favourite that the other two didn’t like nearly as much, in order to make a stronger case for another that might have more traction), but what I liked most about the process was that it was truly collaborative, respectful, and non-combative. I fully support all of the stories we ended up selecting, and I think the other jurors would say the same thing.
I think it is also worth mentioning that the process was completely anonymous until all the decisions had been made. The system is even more stringent than I had guessed, as I thought we might find out who the authors were once we were all assembled to discuss our longlist. But we had no idea who had written the stories or which journals had published them until afterwards.
Was the process of sequencing stories at all comparable to how you assembled your own collection, Mother Superior? Or does the flow of the anthology take a backseat to selecting the right stories?
For the Journey anthology, I can definitely say the flow took a backseat to the selection. The selection process took most of the day, and the sequencing came at the end and it happened quite quickly. I actually don’t remember very much about the sequencing decisions except for a basic desire to space out the funnier pieces.
For Mother Superior, there were fewer stories to contend with. I placed the novellas last because it felt most natural, due to their length, and the title story first, for similar conventional reasons. As for the ones in the middle, I’m afraid no longer have any memory of what factors may have come into play!
Besides, the Journey Prize Anthology, where's the best place to find Canadian stories these days?
If you take a look at the Table of Contents of the Journey anthology, it will give you a good idea of some of the excellent journals you should be reading: The New Quarterly, The Fiddlehead, Prairie Fire, etc.
Occasionally, I've seen literary prizes described as devaluing individual artistic expression by putting it in competition? Do you see any truth in this criticism? If not, why are prizes important?
I think prizes celebrate, not devalue, artistic expression. But it’s true that sometimes a jury is forced to compare apples and oranges. Depending on who wins, maybe the oranges or the apples will feel devalued that year. But overall, I think the dissatisfaction with prizes comes from the premium placed upon them in the culture. If you’re a writer, it’s easy to feel as though everything hinges upon your novel being shortlisted for the Giller. And given how hard it can be to get the public to notice a book in the first place, it’s hard to blame anyone for feeling that way.
The sad truth is that there are many worthy titles that come and go without ever managing to attract public attention. That being said, I don’t think eliminating prizes is the answer. Prizes put much needed funding in the pockets of writers and bring welcome attention to their books. I’m all for celebrating the hard work of writers – it’s important in such a solitary vocation in which one can rarely expect very much in the way of external rewards.