Upcoming Release News: Ah Pook Is (Finally) Here

September 11, 2010

“Now I, William Seward, will unlock my word hoard… Gentle Reader, the Word will leap on you with leopard man iron claws, it will cut off fingers and toes like an opportunistic land crab, it will hang you and catch your jissom like a scrutable dog, it will coil round your thighs like a bushmaster and inject a shot glass of rancid ectoplasm…” – Naked Lunch

The word hoard has unlocked again, as Wired announced this week that a long-unpublished graphic novel by William S. Burroughs, “Ah Pook Is Here,” will be published in the summer of 2011 by Fantagraphics. The graphic novel, a collaboration between Burroughs and artist Malcolm McNeill, was originally created in the 1970s as a comic strip for the now defunct English magazine Cyclops and developed as a full book off and on over the decade. Battered around between publishers before being abandoned in 1979, Fanta Graphics will be releasing it in a “spectacularly packaged two-volume, hinged set, along with ‘Observed While Falling,’ McNeill’s memoir documenting his collaboration with one of America’s most iconic authors.

Per the press release:

“Ah Pook Is Here” is a consideration of time with respect to the differing perceptions of the ancient Maya and that of the current Western mindset. It was Burroughs’ contention that both of these views result in systems of control in which the elite perpetuate its agendas at the expense of the people. They make time for themselves and through increasing measures of Control attempt to prolong the process indefinitely.

John Stanley Hart is the “Ugly American” or “Instrument of Control” – a billionaire newspaper tycoon obsessed with discovering the means for achieving immortality. Based on the formulae contained in rediscovered Mayan books he attempts to create a Media Control Machine using the images of Fear and Death. By increasing Control, however, he devalues time and invokes an implacable enemy: Ah Pook, the Mayan Death God. Young mutant heroes using the same Mayan formulae travel through time bringing biologic plagues from the remote past to destroy Hart and his Judeo/Christian temporal reality.

While this is the first time the work is presented in anything approximating its original conception, “Ah Pook” has been on the radar of Burroughs fans for years. It was published in 1979 in text-only format – now out of print – and chapters were read by Burroughs at his famous live readings, excerpts peppered with wisdom such as “Nobody does more harm than people who feel bad about doing it.” The art itself was resurrected by McNeill only last year – more than 30 years after its original conception – and received showings in Santa Monica and New York City with bits and pieces of Burroughs text.

But the fact that it’s not completely unreleased doesn’t dim my pleasure at the thought of a new William S. Burroughs work seeing the light – and ever since the publication of his Jack Kerouac collaboration “And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks,” this is one of the last bits of his archive to be released. Based on the snippets and imagery, the book will likely be in the same vein as the “Cities of the Red Night” trilogy – indeed, Ah Pook himself is invoked in the dedication alongside Hassan-i-Sabbah and John Stanley Hart factors into the trilogy. But it seems the new release will really be what propels him to Benway-level depravity, if this line from an old reading is any indication:

“He found himself somewhat stonily received, and turning from the bar with his mug of beer to face the room he maladroitly snagged an old peasant in the scrotum with his fishing plug. He whipped out a switchblade with a poorly timed attempt at easy joviality, ‘Well, I guess we’ll just have to cut the whole thing off, eheh?’ Turning away, he made an ineffectual gesture at a New Yorker cartoon with his knife, inadvertently blinding the proprietor’s infant son. Seeing that all his friendly overtures had fallen admittedly flat, he saw fit to withdraw as unobtrusively and expeditiously as possible.”

Fittingly for a book concerned with a South American god of death, the novel appears to be taking the format of the Aztec and Mayan codices, conceived not as a straightforward narrative but “120 continuous pages that would ‘fold out’… a single painting in which text and images were combined in whatever form seemed appropriate to the narrative.” The existing artwork certainly gives the feeling of vastness such codices need to have (check out the “Codex Espangliensis” for a contemporary example) and the apocalyptic images are grimly surreal and evocative in a way that will pair well with the tone of Burroughs’ later writings.

I’ve talked before about how excited I get when some lost work by a well-known author is published, and that excitement is amplified tenfold when it’s by an author who sits at the top of my favored writers pantheon. “Ah Pook Is Here” has easily become one of the most anticipated releases of 2011.

Extra Credit:


Text-to-Screen Ratio: V for Vendetta Retrospective

March 6, 2009

(Editor’s note: With the release of the “Watchmen” film – and an upcoming Text-to-Screen Ratio of the same – I’m going to take a retrospective look back at another Alan Moore adaptation. Be aware of possible spoilers for both works as once again differences in ending will be discussed.)

v_vendetta-spray-eWith the first three entries in this series now complete, a pattern has likely become clear to my readers: I am a purist when it comes to adapting books to film. When I go to see an adaptation, I want to see how close they come to matching my vision of the book and how well they represent the little details I remember. Consequently, a film that deviates too much from the source triggers the critical part of my brain, producing reactions usually on par with the gut reaction of Star Wars fans after their first viewing of “The Phantom Menace.”

However, I do believe it is possible to appreciate an adaptation if it does something with the source material that isn’t perverting it, creating a story that stands on its own. “Naked Lunch” is a personal favorite, taking other William S. Burroughs’ works and biographical elements to create a truly nightmarish tale (which is perverse in its own way, but that’s fodder for another article). Another favorite is 2005’s “V for Vendetta,” developed by the Wachowski brothers and based on Alan Moore’s 1980s graphic novel, less an adaptation and more of a spiritual successor to the original.vforvendettabookcover

At first glance both book and film seems to follow the same format: after nuclear war has devastated the world a fascist government has arisen in Great Britain, built on acts of genocide and total control of the populace. A mysterious character known as V, clad in a smirking Guy Fawkes mask, conducts a terrorist crusade against the regime with the assistance of Evey Hammond, a young woman whom he saves from the secret police. An investigator named Finch is assigned to the case, but finds getting into V’s mind may very well break his own.

But twenty minutes into the film, it’s clear that while the masks look the same there’s something very different underneath. The government here is depicted as an ultra-conservative regime rather than ethnically pure fascism, with the Leader a Big Brother-type of figure and Bill O’Reilly imitators controlling the airwaves. Opposition changes as well: while in the book V was depicted as an anarchist, more interested in “goring the ideology” of his opponents, the film’s V is a romantic revolutionary out to liberate the people and avenge his own treatment at the government’s hands.

The cuts to the story are so numerous you can’t help but think the Wachowskis set their V stuntman loose with his knives on the graphic novel and let him make the edits. Subplot about political intrigue in the government is removed, as is the bulk of V’s speech hijacking the airwaves to directly challenge the population and a LSD-induced epiphany from Finch. Brutal policeman Almond is removed, as is his battered wife Rose – a key player in the story’s climax – and his replacement Creedy is upgraded to the film’s main villain and resembles Dick Cheney heading the Gestapo. And that’s not even getting into the massive subtleties Moore’s works are vibrant with.

So why am I not crucifying the film more even with all these changes? Well, part of it could be because it has to be compared to “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen,” the other most noteworthy adaptation of an Alan Moore book, and it’s difficult to find a book more butchered by the transition to film than that. Short version is it turns a dark Victorian tale into a god-awful summer blockbuster, long version can be found here by someone far angrier than I.

Another part of it could be because the main characters are so well looked after by the actors portraying them. Hugo Weaving’s V may be less dimensional than the book, but the voice and theatrical attitude are perfect – particularly an alliterative opening monologue unique to the film. Natalie Portman has more steel in her than the book’s Evey, but she carries the same concerned tone and does very well in the gripping scenes where V tortures her into a breakdown and rebirth in the rain (the most noteworthy survivor of the transition).

But the core reason why “V for Vendetta” gets away with changing the story is that the changes are being made for a reason: to use the core characters in telling an updated message. The story is targeting the differences between liberal and conservative, removing the harsher edges of the original film and relating to the American political context of the Bush administration. V’s tagline “governments should be afraid of their people” takes on a populist tone rather than chaotic, in some senses going towards the role V set Evey up to take at the book’s end. “Vendetta” the film is at least trying to do something new with the story, updating its message in a way that resonates with the politics of its time, and I can respect that to a point.

And to offer some treats to more rabid fans, the film does keep to the skeleton of the original: the aforementioned Evey rebirth scene, the use of Beethoven’s Fifth as background music, lines such as “Ideas are bulletproof” and the image of revolutionary Guy Fawkes to blow up symbols of failed authority. It may not be perfect, but after “LXG” it’s a step in the right direction.

Final adaptation score: 5 out of 10. So many changes are made to the storyline that it borders on unrecognizable, but the film is well done enough that casual fans can watch it and appreciate the moments when scenes/quotes are copied in.

Review: The Quitter

June 5, 2008

The Quitter

By Harvey Pekar

Published November 2005

Vertigo Press

104 pp.

ISBN 1-401-20399-3

Date reviewed: November 4, 2005

Originally reviewed in: The Daily Cardinal

He may not be a superhero, but in the field of independent comics Harvey Pekar is as much of an icon as Spiderman or the Fantastic Four. For close to 30 years Pekar’s chronicled life’s ups and downs in the autobiographical comic “American Splendor,” picking up on the odd behaviors of everyone around him and bemoaning everyday problems like car trouble.

Now, with the release of the graphic novel “The Quitter,” Pekar finally answers the question of what made him the comic hero he is today by chronicling his youth on the streets of Cleveland. Illustrated by “American Splendor” contributor Dean Haspiel, “The Quitter” proves it’s a strange trip to being a file clerk/comic book writer and there’s always something new to pick up on along the way.

As the title indicates, Pekar’s youth was filled with quitting – leaving the football team when he wasn’t made a starter, dropping out of college after a C+ on a geography test and leaving a mailman job over a crippling fear that he couldn’t tie a bundle of mail right. His self-doubt also pushes him back in life, with an inability to wash clothes leading to a massive panic attack and a discharge from the Navy.

Pekar heaps a bit of blame on himself as an “incorrigible screw-up,” but what is really clear in this book is outside origins of his problems. The fact that it’s a graphic novel as opposed to “American Splendor’s” loose stories means Pekar creates a strong sense of narration, pointing out how his intensely insecure mother and failure to handle mechanical tasks create his obstacles for years.

The narrative also makes the revelation that Pekar, who made his physical trials with chemotherapy and hip replacement a key point of “American Splendor,” was actually a feared street fighter in his youth. After watching Pekar get beat down by daily life for so long it’s comforting to see him take the advantage, and the moment where he takes his fighting a step too far is one of the most gripping panels in the whole book.

And there is a fair share of gripping panels, as Haspiel’s style of solid lines and shades of gray gives “The Quitter” a film noir atmosphere with plenty of shadows to hide doubt and self-loathing. Out of all the “American Splendor” artists Haspiel’s art is some of the cleanest and most flattering to Pekar, and is perfect for capturing Pekar’s bipolar youth – sardonic in one panel and sullen in the next.

But “The Quitter” isn’t solely about Pekar’s shifting moods and giving in to adversity. His lifelong love of jazz shines through in the book, and it’s clear as he recalls his record collecting and musical analysis he’s still just as interested in them 45 years later. What makes this interest so impressive in “The Quitter” is seeing that he had just as much reason to abandon it – critique from employers and disapproval from his parents – but he continued to write reviews, proving even a quitter can stay with something.

Concise and vivid, “The Quitter” is a worthy addition to Pekar’s canon, perfect for anyone who’s read an “American Splendor” comic or seen the film adaptation and wants to find out what shaped this working class hero. There may not be a happy ending to the story but the book still ends with a semi-uplifting message: no matter how bad things get, there’s always something down the road you may not screw up on.