Table of Contents: Books

Peter O’Donnell: 1920 – 2010

“Stateless by birth, British by choice. Multilingual. Expert at judo, karate, gem carving, smuggling, and exotic espionage techniques… Former master criminal who retired with well over a half a million sterling. Hobby: Danger… The worlds most dazzling female secret agent… Modesty Blaise.”

Blaise is the the sovereign princess of Spy-Fi, a shapely Venn diagram of the finest aspects of Flint, Helm, Palmer, and Bond. Whether in va-va-voom-ish comics or in expertly overheated novels, she was a triumph, as the New York Times put it, of the “hyperbolic imagination” of Peter O’Donnell, who died this weekend…

The thing is, the “hyperbolic can i buy vicodin in cancun imagination” is among the hardest sensibilities to wield. Kitsch, absurdity, sentimentality, schmaltz, and general idiocy lie on all sides of its narrow beam. But when expertly trained, nothing can match its light and heat – and therein lies the true measure of O’Donnell’s accomplishment and as well as the weight of his absence.

(above, pulp maestro Bob McGinnis‘s covers for the first three Modesty Blaise novels, plus the first edition of the debut)

Frank Frazetta: 1928 – 2010

In weighing the loss of Frank Frazetta I think about what I always think about when I think about Frazetta – Caravaggio.

That is, he, like Caravaggio, took the fables and fantasies he passionately depicted just seriously enough, a precise ratio of rigor and rapture. It’s why the work is so powerful, so definitive – Frazetta painted with just enough supple realism, while conjuring just enough alien atmosphere, that he imbued the fantastic with the weight of fact.

(above, Frazetta’s covers for Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter of Mars series)

An Afternoon’s Spoils

Lunchtime score – a promise of many good reads, yes, but what a cover! Love the way the liquid streaks and stains fill the jittery Nouveau pencil sketch… then there is the water-bed-like plinth the puffy “Henry James” type creates for the title above, and man, it all settles together just so…

Bright Young Things

From 1915 till about 1940 or so, the Brinkley Girl cut a feverish swath through the cultural imagination. As drawn by illustrator Nell Brinkley, she was like the Gibson Girl on an absinthe bender – exuberant line, riots of splashy color, and buckets of joie de vivre. Girls obsessed over her adventures, hairstyles and fashion shifted in her wake, and she was feted in songs, films and theater.

Nell Brinkley’s specialty was the episodic themed series. Golden Eyes and Her Hero followed our heroine’s exploits and derring-do during World War One. Betty and Billy and Their Love Through the Ages, my personal favorite, featured a besotted glamorous couple in various romantic historical vignettes – intrigue in Southern plantation society, among Medieval troubadours, Phoenician swashbucklers, etc… The format begins to open up in the 20’s with sophisticated frothy flapper larks like the Fortunes of Flossie.

Fantagraphics Book’s wonderful new survey, The Brinkley Girls, collects these series and more, along with a fascinating introduction by the book’s editor, Trina Robbins. Aces.

John Foxx

Some photographs and art by John Foxx. Foxx, driven to merge his love of the cracked pop art of Roxy Music with the exhilarating rush and tabloid sensibilities of the Sex Pistols, formed the first, and still astonishing, version of Ultravox! He left to pursue purely electronic music, and under the name Dennis Leigh, established himself as a successful graphic designer and artist, working on book covers for Salman Rushdie and Anthony Burgess, among others.

Critic Robert Christgau offered a typically astringent and succinct summation of Ultravox! – “John Foxx’s detached, creamy baritone works against the instrumentation’s electronic cast for a streamlined rocksy music that suits titles like “Dislocation” and “Someone Else’s Clothes.” But unlike Bryan Ferry Foxx talks as if he’s detached clean through, unlike Brian Eno he’s encumbered by delusions of existential significance, and unlike both he’s never funny”

Dead on, yes, but… Foxx’s detachment and existential musings led him to the two great themes that have animated his work ever since – the idea of the Quiet Man and London Overgrown. From these two themes he has build a rich, self sustaining aesthetic world that comprises music, photography, fashion, and in a modest way, philosophy.

The Quiet Man is, in essence, a new wave take on the man with the grey flannel suit which Foxx inhabits, literally. Dressed in a ordinary buy vicodin legally online uk grey suit, Foxx embarks on long treks where he explores the full texture of urban anonymity. London Overgrown is a sustained rumination on nature subsuming the modern urban landscape. His musings on both, well worth reading, can be found here, on his comprehensive blog/site.

What is worthwhile here are not the themes themselves – as notions they are familiar to any thoughtful person – but the quality body of work Foxx has wrought from them. The first three Ultravox! records, the pioneering solo work like the minimalist synth of Metamatic, the pastoral electronic pop of the Garden, ambient pieces, and his continued and concurrent exploration of these themes in music, video, photography, and writing, are all worthwhile.

He has a great new single out under the moniker John Foxx and the Maths, aptly described by the UK Arts Desk as ” a very deliberate step back into his own past for a couple of songs that sound as if they were minted in 1980… acelebration of old analogue sounds in collaboration with producer and synthesizer archivist extraordinaire, Benge. Both songs are flecked with requisite android moodiness but stand up in their own right rather than sounding like retro pastiches.” Available on itunes here. More selections below.

Ultravox!: Young Savage (Peel Session):

Ultravox!: Artifical Life:


Mr. Bass’s Planetoid

Simply magical illustrations by Louis Darling for Eleanor Cameron’s 1958 young adult lark, Mr. Bass’s Planetoid. The book is the third in the six volume Mushroom Planet series. The books follow the adventures of two young boys, David and Chuck, and their travels to the Mushroom Planet, a small class M moon in an invisible orbit 50,000 miles from Earth covered in various types of mushrooms and populated by little green people.

I love how Darling’s illustrations merge the feel of classic mid-century boys adventure books with the epic, scientifically rigorous space art pioneered by artists like Chesley Bonestell.

The book has some personal significance as well. It’s like this – The whole Mushroom Planet series begins when the two boys, spurred by a mysterious newspaper advert, construct a rocket from everyday materials. Well, when I was a squirt, my cousin can i buy vicodin in cozumel convinced me, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that I could build my own functional rocket. More about that in this post, here, but suffice it to say, I spent the better part of that summer absolutely sure I was space bound.

The vividness of my belief was, to this day, one of the most powerful manifestations of my imagination. So when my cousin brought over Mr. Bass’s Planetoid recently, it was quite something to feel that childhood fantasia reduced to an idea in a book I was holding in my hand 30 years later. Rather than a cold shower of demystification, though, the moment gave a fresh gloss to a tired conceit – the power of the best fiction and art to make imagination tangible.

Tom Wolfe Caricatures

These caricatures by Tom Wolfe are excerpted from In Our Time, an illustrated patchwork of essays, observations and commentary. The jacket flap copy, while a bit foofy, is dead on – the book recalls “the palmy days when social caricature flourished in the great European satirical magazines Simplicissimus and L’Assiette au Beurre. His eye for the costumery and gesture of the moment is often as telling as his Pantagruelian appetite for the zaniness of the second half of the twentieth century, which he regards as America’s “Elizabethan period, her Bourbon Louis romp, her season of rude animal health and rising sap!” The drawings are mixed from the same ingredients as the writing: A strong base of precise observation, a jigger of affection, a generous pour of smug, swirled and served with verve and flair.

Queen of Hearts Cookbook

Found this treasure over the holidays. It rings all the bells – charming line art and hand drawn type, gorgeously sturdy and nuanced typesetting, substantial textured stock, all printed with flair and care.

Also, the recipes themselves are awesome – 50’s era comfort foods, full of egg, onion soup mix, cream, anchovy, steaks, chops, Jello, Roquefort blue and crumbled bacon. Yum.

A quick scan of the Internets yields little additional info on this cutie. Peter Pauper Press, according to their site, has been at it since 1928, but now churns out a sea of uninspired buy generic vicodin novelty books and journals that clog the front of Barnes & Noble. More sadly yet, nothing on illustrator Josephine Irwin, who, judging from this work, had quite the knack. I can tell you that its part of a series – when I found this one it was nestled with four or five of it’s siblings. I wince at not having snagged them all. Well, if you ever find yourselves on Rt. 52 between Pennsylvania and Delaware, deep in Wyeth country, the place is called Barbara’s Books….

Noir Yorker

I have long adored this pair of New Yorker covers, illustrated by Owen Smith, for their attention-getting va-va-voom-ishness. The thing with Smith’s pulp derived work, though, is that it always has this aspect of impressionistic exaggeration to it, this bulging massiveness. In the past it always reminded me of social realist illustrations of the 20’s and 30’s – boxers and laborers, etc… And that thing being not my thing, that thing was always a hang up for me with Smith.

Looking again at these covers recently, his iconic flame haired femme fatale recalled something very different – the iconic flame haired femme fatales in Dante Rossetti’s Pre-Raphaelite paintings. This got me thinking… The Pre-Raphaelites rejected the classical stiffness of academic painting. They wanted to re-infuse high art with passion, detail, drama – visceral aesthetic heat. The human embodiment of that desire was more often than not a full lipped, square jawed, voluptuous, red haired fox.

That’s more like it. The echo of Pre-Raphaelite foxiness makes me like the covers even more, sure, but it also elevates them beyond “Look! Pulp! Sexy! Must not be the old starched collared, monocled New Yorker anymore!” They’re more of an articulated rallying cry – similar to the one their movie critic Pauline Kael made in the late 70’s when she titled her review collections Going Steady,  I Lost it at the Movies, and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. They insist that our encounters with culture should be lusty and passionate as well as rigorous and cerebral. Well, yes. Agreed. (This notion also happens to be the overarching theme of Rush’s song suite Cygnus X-1 Book II: Hemispheres, but that is, of course, another post….)

Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882) Lady Lilith
Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882) The Bower Meadow

Draw 50 Aircraft & Spacecraft

Illustrations from Draw 50 Airplanes, Aircraft, and Spacecraft, by Lee J Ames, published by Doubleday in 1977. If I remember correctly, besides following the steps accurately, a successful drawing required that you loudly mimic the sounds of the craft as you drew it.

The Visual Art of William S. Burroughs

Visual art was part and parcel of William S. Burroughsentire creative project. While the writing and the biography dominated people’s perception, his creative efforts encompassed art, graphics, calligraphy, type, photography, film, assemblage, poetry, spoken word, and music.

Culture itself was his medium. For most artists this claim would be, on its face, pretentious or megalomaniacal (it feels pretentious just writing that sentence.) Burroughs was deeply sincere about it, and he pursued it with a single minded, deadpan sincerity. The cut-up was, broadly speaking, the method that he employed wherever he turned his attention. In the visual arts, that resulted in work that anticipated or was sympathetic with many fundamental currents in post-war modern art and design.

His art evolved in a fluid series of phases. The earliest work is essentially calligraphic and typographic. Words degrade into gestures and gestures gather up into words – the notion being that there is less distance between these two states that we think.  Legibility and meaning are powerful, yet fragile forces – easily dissipated, scattered, and reconstituted. This notion runs through everything Burroughs does.

Grid systems feature prominently in his work. Most striking is his adoption of newspaper layout blue-lines as a background on which he composes gonzo gazettes. Late in his life, after his retirement to Lawrence, Kansas to live among his thoughts and his cat army, he wanders into Robert Rauschenberg territory, shotgun in hand.

The results, his shotgun paintings, are my personal favorites – fine pop art stuff, paint splatters, comics, etc…  The shotgun as a brush is both completely adolescent and yet congruent with his serious desire to blow up meaning and structure and read the resulting tea leaves. Also during this period he does a “spooky stencil” thing that I get, but falls a bit flat aesthetically (but does anticipate the original opening credits for the X-files.)

The work was collected in a great monograph called Ports of Entry: William S. Burroughs and the Arts, out of print but available, here. Also, highly recommended is the biography Literary Outlaw by Ted Morgan.  It includes the following exchange: Person to Burroughs “You look like a walking corpse…” Burroughs: “Yes… but not all corpses can walk” Heh.

Mink Mutiny (recto) 1987
with Brion Gysin, Untitled (Rub Out the Word) 1965
Dust jacket illustrations for Naked Lunch, 1959 and Soft Machine, 1966
with Brion Gysin, Untitled (Addiction Plan) 1965
Envy,  Gluttony, from the Seven Deadly Sins, 1992
Rub Out the Word, 1989

Toddler Britannica

The early 70’s edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica was a three stage rocket of concentrated knowledge. The base stage was the sturdy brown and gilt edifice we all know, and remember fondly as it fades into its new role reinforcing the foundations of used bookstores the world over. The second stage was the crimson leather bound Junior edition, the starch and fibre of a million middle school book reports. The final stage was the now nearly forgotten toddler edition – “The First Adventure in Learning Program” (See a vintage ad of the whole set here.)

They where co-produced with the Golden Press folk, which goes a long way to explain their graphic excellence. At first blush, what impresses is the serial design – amazing palette, spare but strong unifying compositions and type. And a totally killer logo – the thick-lined little birdie wearing a mortarboard. But they really blow your noggin when you grok the distinct styles and nuances of the illustrations. No surprise – the volumes were illustrated by a veritable who’s who of classic kid art – Joe Kaufman, Trina Schart, JP Miller, Dagmar Wilson, June Goldsborough, Caraway, and Art Seiden. (Another post will cover the inside art of the volumes, which is just as good)

The series grouped knowledge around experiential themes like math, comprehension, metrics, etc… one, though, was much more profound – “The Magic of Everyday Things.”  Basically it was a kid manifesto for the idea you can discern art, beauty, and coolness in just about anything, provided you’re receptive, enthusiastic and imaginative enough to try. An insight for a lifetime, and when I think about how long I marinated in these books as a squeaker, I figure I owe them a mighty debt. Take a bow little mortarboard birdie!

Ex Libris Taras Shepelavy, Pt. 2

I sincerely hope that author Maurice L Hartung of the University of Chicago was as impressed as I was with the cover designs to his slide can i buy vicodin rule manuals. (Also, belated congratulations to Dr. Hartung on the promotion he seems to have received between the publication of the guides.)

Leon Bakst







Another recent discovery at the Isabella Gardner Museum was the work of Leon Bakst. Bakst began his career as an illustrator, but quickly gained a reputation as a formidable painter and designer. He is best known, however, for his work in the theatre. He began a collaboration with Serge Diaghilev, the Russian art critic and founder of the Ballets Russes designing costumes and sets. By the time he became the artistic director of the Ballets Russes he was internationally famous.

That I saw his work at all at the Gardner is a blogament to their graphic power. Two small costume sketches leapt out from the top row of a dense grid of perhaps 50 small sketches and engravings that spanned from floor to ceiling. A potent mix of Slavic motifs, exuberant patterns, and fluid gestural drawing, their presence belied their tiny scale. Bakst’s versatility is tremendous – vivid and impressionistic set paintings, exquisitely sensitive drawings, and moody, stylish paintings and illustrations. The most comprehensive survey of his work, Leon Bakst: Set and Costume Designs, Book Illustrations, Paintings and Graphic Works by Irina Pruzhan is out of print, but available.

True Romance


These covers were painted by Robert McGinnis, the dean of American paperback illustration. McGinnis’ reputation rests on the more 1000 pulps that literally define the genre, as well as the iconic movie posters he did for Barbarella, James Bond, and the Odd Couple. So, off the bat, they are sexy, torrid – simply killer – illustrations.

What’s more interesting is that they are the result of a fascinating development in paperback book illustration. In the early 70’s photography supplanted illustration as pulp’s preferred mode. Pressed out of the genre that made their careers, and in some cases fortunes, some illustrators retired to fine art, some to advertising. Others, in the case of McGinnis and Robert Maguire – two of the absolute best – migrated to romance covers.

What distinguished their efforts are the the noirish touches that they brought over from the pulps. Their penchant for eggshell hues, alabaster skin tones, muted colors and gestural brushstrokes gave the paintings a real allure. Also, they conjured powerful atmospherics – an epic historical sweep, a genuine sexiness, more than a touch of danger, and a sense of swashbuckling adventure.

Oh, and design-wise, these are seriously great. The typesetting is perfect in its own way and the compositions unusually dynamic and well ordered. As a exercise in serial design this Johanna Lindsay series in particular is a knockout – issuing forth in double barrelled salvos of modes – color blocked, on-white, and full lurid bleeds.

Together the design and the painting lift the covers from from usual ham handed, frosted glop to the status of real melodramatic art – which requires, along with an overheated imagination, more than a fair share of skill and technique.

Silver Slivers


Pressed into my hand by a fan, the poetry of David Berman confounded all expectations. Based on the reputation of his band, Silver Jews, I expected something top shelf, but sheesh. Quoting back cover blurbs is lazy, but James Tate gets it exactly – one after another, the poems in Actual Air “freeze life in impossible contortions.” Bingo! And, it’s a visual notion, those “contortions,” which helps explain why all the associations the work evoked for me were visual as well.

Besides fleeting vignettes, a melange of the worn south, bad advertising, and snippets of sci-fi, I kept thinking of a certain strain of pop art – the kind with some heaviness of meaning, of weight, at it’s core. Ruscha’s word paintings kept shimmering into focus, along with flashes of the instillation art of Ed Kienholz and the melancholy noir pop collages of Alexis Smith.

I think the Rauschenberg fan comes the closest to the sensation of reading the poems, though. At rest the phrases feel out of context. As it begins to spin and whirr, the phrases merge and mesh into coherence.  As it spins down again it leaves you having experienced something singular, poignant, and fleeting.

(Robert Rauschenberg, Eco Echo III, assemblage, 1992-1993)

His ‘n Hers Set


I’ve had a yen for melodramatic Douglas Sirk-y entertainments of late, so accordingly I just happily burned through Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca. Scored a nice, cracked, loose, hardbound reading copy – burgandy cloth, yellowed pages – pleasure to hold, pleasure to read. Gloomy, doomy, weepy, overwrought, etc, etc.. the tops. So last night I’m putting it away on the bookshelf when I notice double paperback versions of Madam Bovary… hurm? Turns out to be a his n’ hers set – bought separately before my wife and I married and nicely reflective of our aesthetic predilections. Also, just cool seeing Emma Bovary rendered in the prevailing sultry graphic modes of the day.