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Two to Make You Laugh, Think

Talking Lines: The Graphic Stories of R. O. Blechman. (Drawn & Quarterly) $29.95

If Vonnegut had concentrated his genius on cartooning, he might have become a Blechman. Born just eight years after the German-American slaughterhouse survivor, Blechman is the undisputed king of the minimalist, political, and funny comics narrative. Interestingly, D&Q has chosen to call his work “Graphic Stories,” which basically means that they refuse to recognize the boundaries of the comics frame. Stand-outs include “The Gilded Age,” which pokes fun at contemporary art (“Roll over, Damien Hirst!”), celebrity, and consumerism, by literally interpreting the 1960s R. Crumb quote, “What’s the price of shit today?” Less humorous but equally compelling, his 2004 “Nobody Loves a Liberator,” from the New York Times, is a truly prophetic vision of the U.S. occupation of Iraq.

Generously introduced by Seth, the volume also includes an interview transcript with Blechman, in which he proves to be as humble as his drawings. After explaining his motivation for early cartooning—a neighbor girl that painted—he says,

I always felt that my skills, such as they are, are as much literary as visual—maybe even more literary than visual, because I always enjoyed language a lot. As for my drawing skills, if I work hard I can do very well. But I am very lazy, and I am not interested in art that much. I’m really not. I mean, I love it, but unless someone says, “Go do,” I don’t.

The comics as literature debate is boringly old—Blechman’s stories have proved comics belong for over fifty years, as especially fine specimens of contemporary literature. An excellent selection even for those who, opposite Blechman, aren’t interested in literature that much.

How to Be Innapropriate, Daniel Nester. (Soft Skull Press) $14.95

Daniel Nester epitomizes Generation Y humor without allowing it to limit the boundaries of his literary output. The editors of McSweeney’s would snicker approvingly, but Nester’s book doesn’t end—like their online columns—in irony. Despite containing a chapter on mooning, a doctored transcript of an interview between Terry Gross and Gene Simmons (in which all Simmons’ answers have been replaced by an artificial intelligence chatbot), a literary portrait of video gamer Todd Rogers, and mock ESL exercises, the book somehow comes across as as honest a portrait of himself as Nester could manage. And that’s no condescension: the book is heartbreakingly funny. Nester proves that being honest is about as inappropriate as you can possibly be.

The book ends with a chapter titled “Timeline of the Author’s Inappropriate Acts, Selected c. 1968 – Present…” a bullet point list that documents his notably inappropriate actions since 1968, including the birth of “American actress and author (Stori Telling)” Tori Spelling. In 1970, Nester “Wedges wet Cheerios inside own nostrils until unable to breathe” and “Hides own feces inside training pants under bed.” By 2009, he “Recommends to students to apply to MFA creative writing programs” and “Trumpets own improprieties to advance writing career.” While Wet Cheerios and MFAs may be the stuff that inappropriateness is made of, Nester’s sustained trumpeting is equal parts artifice and honesty, exploring their intrinsic connection with humor, grace, and farting.

DS

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