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I wonder sometimes if the critical acclaim some comics receive does more harm to the medium than good. If a comic gets lots of attention and it turns out that it’s inaccessible or badly written or just plain pedestrian yet illustrated, can that be good for a medium seeking acceptance? I sometimes wish we would stop holding up genre potboiler page-turners like Watchmen or The Dark Knight Returns as the highest mark of artistic merit we can achieve. Fans are so quick to show off anything that even tries to be “smart” which validates the invalid feeling among the literati that comics naturally aren’t intelligent and therefore must try to transcend themselves. And how long before the literati catch on that what we’re showing off is sub-par anyway?

Halfway through The Golden Age I thought it was “fine enough.” An interesting plot, unpredictable characters, good solid Saturday-afternoon-in-the-park reading much like The Dark Knight Returns. A few more pages in and I realized it wasn’t even that. It’s just a bad comic — amateurish writing from James Robinson that any first-year fiction workshop would whip into shape and art from a normally brilliant penciler (Paul Smith) who tries so hard to change his style that he comes up with a mix of ugly and anatomically incorrect. So why bother writing about it at all here? Because this is one of the most critically acclaimed “graphic novels” of all time, a post-modern superhero genre critique that supposedly takes apart all of the things that make it work and exposes its dark underbelly, and it’s not at all. It’s a comic that forces its characters like so many chess pieces into a strategy that resembles something like an intelligent genre critique, leaving all relatable human feeling at the door.

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I’ve written before about how I develop ( oftentimes extreme)  author crushes.  Chabon and Maguire are two of the my biggest.  They make me want to a be better writer (which is to say a good writer), they make me feel ashamed that I  have never created the kind of sentences they do, seemingly effortlessly.  I often stop and reread, particularly in Chabon’s case, a phrase that is a brain teaser, something you have to really sit and ponder before you really get it.

Suffice to say, I love these guys.  I adore them.  If I were a worshipful person, I might even deify them. 

Which is why these two books were such a fist-in-the-gut disappointment. 

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Cover ImageI finished Mr. B. Gone (I’ll get to that later) and needed a new book for today’s commute, so I picked up this one.  I like nothing more than a good feud.  Historical, epic feuds are best.  And with Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots on the cover, how could I resist?  Two of my favorites in the world of political cat fights.

Alas, I only made it only to page 7. 

That’s right page 7 –  wherein Mr. Colin Evans, the author of this book, said that Mary Queen of Scots was the daughter of James IV of Scotland and Margaret Tudor, sister of Henry VIII.

I had to read it three times, each time more desperately trying to find the loophole.  Some word or another that I’d missed that was changing the meaning of the sentence.  Because, you see she was actually their granddaughter.  Her parents were James V of Scotland and Mary of Guise (who was French).  But no, the sentence was unfortunately very very wrong.

How does such a blatant, glaring, easily discovered, easily fixed error get into such book?  Let alone STAY in such a book.  Where are all the ever eager intern researchers?  How did this slip through the cracks?

Unfortunately this is way beyond my tolerance level.  Though I understand that not everyone is the Anglo-phile that I am.  I know that most people in this country know all the American presidents instead of all the British monarchs from the Saxons to Elizabeth II.  I know that I have a bit of an obsession.  But that is beside the point because due to this blinding beacon of an error I now have no trust that the rest of his information is correct, which of course makes reading the book a useless endeavor. 

Into the book swap at work it goes.  Too bad, because it might have been interesting.


SPOILER ALERT! SPOILER ALERT! Do not — I repeat, DO NOT keep reading beyond this point if you don’t want it revealed that Richard Nixon won the presidential election of 1972. You’ve been warned!

Considering the fact that I obviously knew how this book was going to turn out, the ending was surprisingly disturbing. I guess I was hoping that Dr. Thompson would reveal some ancient secrets about why it happened that way. But it turns out that, no, you could have written this ending as well, even without knowing anything substantial about the election. We’ve seen it all again, a thousand times since.

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There’s a reason why I think Hunter S. Thompson is one of the best political writers we’ve ever had in America, and why I think this is by far the most insightful and honest book about presidential campaigning I’ve ever read. It’s hard to pin down, but here’s what I mean:

“By half time, with the Rams trailing by six, I had established a firm scientific basis for the paranoid gibberish I had uttered, an hour or so earlier, while standing in the hotel driveway and talking with Bobo the night pimp.”

And yes, that does mean I’m still reading this book two months later. Hey now, come on! That’s why Jessica is Jessica and I’m just me!

Wrap-up on this one coming soon as I careen headlong towards the end of Dr. Thompson’s wild ride.

godMy life, like a lot of others, is not made up of epiphanies.  It’s the continual presence of small, evolving thoughts that make the biggest changes in my perspective, rather than the cataclysmic breaks from ideology.  I couldn’t tell you when I first learned about evolution, though my current interest and study is clearly the result of some early interest piqued and nurtured.  Nor could I pinpoint the moment I broke my covenant with God (an agreement made by others for me, before I was able to make it).  It was too gradual to know when I finally parted ways with the Catholic Church. 

I used to envy those with faith, thinking that by lacking it I was lacking something else far more important (turns out maybe I just don’t have the ‘god gene’).  But over the years I’ve become more comfortable letting that (Catholic) guilt go.  Ultimately I’ve realized that by being an unbeliever I haven’t missed out on anything and in many ways it’s kept me above (or below or around) the fray.  When the Church scandals came out I was able to feel the simple human emotions of revulsion and anger instead of loss and betrayal.

There is a stigma with admitting to atheism.  People react as if you just admitted you don’t like you grandmother (personal experience talking here).  There is an intense pressure to explain yourself, to say what you do believe in, as if people fear that a flood or burning bush or lightening may strike you down and they might get caught in the divine punishment cross fire.

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Hunter Thompson does something unique in this book that I wish more political journalists tried. He’ll spend almost an entire chapter writing about the campaign like gripping sports commentary and then, just as you’re caught up in the excitement, he whips out a trail of hopeless vitriol about the sham of the entire process. He’s doing his job, but he’s tired of it, and that exhaustion is worth noting. We can pretend this is a contest or a race, or any of the other terms journalists use to trivialize the most sacred act of our democracy, but we should remember that it’s much more serious than that.

I empathize with Thompson (and I bet most voters do, too). We’re involved in this whole thing because it matters, but we have to pretend that the emperor has clothes on in order to keep our sanity and not punch someone. (And that note of violence isn’t all mine — by this point in the book Thompson has talked about wanting to rip someone’s throat out, throw someone else down an elevator shaft, and a half dozen other such flare-ups. The frequency is increasing the more time he spends away from his beloved Sandy and with the pompous idjits on the trail.)

When Thompson sneaks off of Ed Muskie’s campaign train in Florida because the whole depressing business reminds him too much of a Nixon campaign, he fatefully gives his press pass to a crazy hippie so the guy can have a free ride to Florida. The mess that ensues is incredible, not just for what happened, but for what it says about American politics.

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These are the times that try men’s souls. Or, at least, mine.

I hate primary season so much it makes me rage at the wind. Nothing speaks to the absurdity of politics moreso than this load of crap. While the general election in November at least pretends to be about what the people want, the primaries are always about what the media says about the candidates, which state wants more influence over the other, which candidate is the best-looking, most well-spoken, or has collected the most money so far. Do any of them deliver messages that resonate with regular folks? Umm, I don’t know since that apparently doesn’t matter.

So it’s been nice to read the good Dr. Thompson’s book chronicling his chronicles of the 1972 presidential race. I can’t think of anyone better than him, being so outside of the establishment (he always calls members of the mainstream punditry, “the press wizards”). We read to know we’re not alone, and reading this is like having a sage old dope smoker by my side agreeing with everything I scream at the newspaper every morning.

Better than that, he is writing about a bygone era of politics I never knew existed. This year was the pivotal one, apparently. Back then, the possibility — even inevitability — of strong third parties was real. This was a time when party nominees weren’t necessarily decided upon by voters — the gruesome 1968 Democratic National Convention was evidence of that. While the pundits and the press almost single-handedly coronate or crucify nominees today (remember the Dean scream?), in ’72 reporters were still only as influential in the process as football commentators are in the outcome of the Super Bowl.

But the dirty, corporate-controlled, People Magazine-style campaigns were sown back then. It’s kind of exhilarating to read about it first-hand from someone as human and honest as Thompson.

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