Pop Culture Gadabout
Friday, July 18, 2014
      ( 7/18/2014 10:07:00 PM ) Bill S.  

“A GAMBLER DOESN’T LOOK BACK.” With the U.S. southern border so much in the news these days, Hard Case Crime’s reissue of Lawrence Block’s 1962 pulp novel Borderline would definitely seem to be riding the zeitgeist. Set in the early sixties, the book follows a quartet of aimless Americans as they cross the line ‘tween El Paso and Juarez, moving across the border for “excitement,” which they get in spades.

Block, working under his pulp paperback pseudonym Don Holliday, was not writing a tome about immigration at the time. In those days, before the demands to “build the dang fence,” the act of crossing country borderlines wasn’t that big a deal. Instead, the writer uses the border as a metaphor for moving from a world of laws into “anything goes” lawlessness. It’s a familiar fictional trope, but the writer gets away with it on the strength of his characters.

Borderline’s ostensible “hero” is a professional gambler named Marty, who moves between the two border towns in search of card games. Marty hooks up with Meg Rector, a twenty-seven year-old divorcee down from Chicago, looking for something to alleviate her boredom. In Juarez, Meg will also meet Lily Daniels, a beautiful but damaged teenage runaway who has landed in a live Mexican sew show. All three of them are headed for a meeting with Michael Patrick Weaver, a murderous horror comics loving psychopath who gets off on cutting beautiful women.

Block follows his characters as they wander around the borderlines, occasionally connecting but just as often glimpsing each other in passing. At times, as in the scenes featuring gambler Marty at the card table, it feels as Block/Holliday is killing time until he can get all of his cast in the same space, but then he’ll grab you with a trip to a seedy Juarez sex club or a night on the prowl with his serial killer. The sequences featuring Weaver, in particular, are singularly creepy, with their moments of slashing brutality and convincingly rendered delusional inner monologues.

Of the two lead females, the one who comes across most convincingly is teenaged Lily, whose jaded reactions to the debauched world in which she travels is believably bleak. This is not a book where anybody gets to be magically rescued; it moves inexorably toward a nasty (if too brief) conclusion.

Because it is a relatively quick read (166 pages), Hard Case Crime has added three short stories that Block wrote for the pulp mags of the day. Two of them, “The Burning Fury” and “A Fire at Night,” are quick pieces focusing on protagonists as murderously crazed as Borderline’s Weaver. The third story, “Stag Party Girl” (from the 1963 issues of Men’s Magazine), turns out to be a more traditional hard-boiled mystery novella, with a private dick who gets to bed two sexy suspects. (“We were a pair of iron filings and my bed was a magnet,” Block’s first person narrator tells us at one point.) We’re more than a decade away from the writer’s greatest p.i. creation, Matthew Scudder, and you can tell. His p.i. hero is men’s mag one-dimensional. The results remain entertaining, though – and a comparison between this and later Scudder novels like Eight Million Ways to Die provides an object lesson in creative maturation.

(First published on Blogcritics.)


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Tuesday, July 15, 2014
      ( 7/15/2014 05:55:00 AM ) Bill S.  

“AND NEVER BE AFRAID TO BE A SILLYPANTS!” Back when I was a smart-ass lad, the prime source for gag cartoons and non-series strips were the back pages of print magazines and in cheap paperback collections. I owned a box full of these paperbacks as a kid: collections by such magazine stalwarts as Virgil Partch (a.k.a. VIP), and I returned to them as often as I did to pb repackagings of newspaper comics like “Peanuts” or “B.C.” The gag collections were a trace edgier than the newspaper sets. Produced to fit a variety of differently themed magazines – including men’s mags – they weren’t as bound by the restrictions of newspaper syndication.

These days, of course, the largest platform for gag cartoons is the Internet. (Magazines? What are those again?) Yet reading cartoonist Jim Benton’s first print collection of web-based Reddit cartoons, Dog Butts and Love. And Stuff Like That. And Cats. (NBM), I found myself mentally comparing it to the great gag cartoonist books of my youth.

To be sure, the level of what’s considered acceptably funny these days has undergone significant revision. Not even Gahan Wilson at his most demented would have come up with a cartoon featuring a demonic Easter Bunny who cuts off kiddies’ eyelids with scissors. But Benton does and he manages to make it funny – if still a bit icky.

As a jokester, Benton is as capable of coming up with a silly boob joke as he is a darkly comic riff on existential angst. The cartoons in Dog Butts vary from one-panel to sequential, from philosophical to goofy, thoughtful to groan-worthy – but they had me laughing out loud and shoving pages under my wife’s nose more than once. (“Check this out! ‘The Passive-Aggressive Raven’!”) Benton’s drawing style ranges from Thurber-ish to more meticulous: in one memorable sequence he draws five panels with stick figures, then shows us in fuller final panel that the figures we’ve been seeing are a horned demon and a three-eyed cat. The devil is in the details, right?

NBM’s trade paperback printing of Benton’s cartoons is a touch classier than the cheapie paperbacks cranked out by the likes of Fawcett Books back in the fifties and sixties, but it’s still in the service of the same brand of basic belly laffs. VIP would no doubt approve.

(First published on Blogcritics.)


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Pop cultural criticism - plus the occasional egocentric socio/political commentary by Bill Sherman (popculturegadabout AT yahoo.com).

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